04/05/2006 12:00AM

Greatness should be good enough

Trainer Mel Stute is a Hall of Fame nominee for the seventh time.

ARCADIA, Calif. - It is probably not much of a public service to target a piece of writing for only 186 readers, which just happens to be the number of voters who received their ballots for the 2006 Hall of Fame selection process this week.

Those 186, however, hold in their hands the everlasting legacies of 12 Hall of Fame candidates - horses, trainers, and jockeys - whose names rattle around the history of racing like diamonds in a mason jar.

Among them are the late Robert Wheeler, winner of the 1958 and 1959 runnings of the Santa Anita Derby with Silver Spoon and Tompion, and Mel Stute, who nearly won the 1976 Santa Anita Derby with Double Discount and did win it in 1986 with Snow Chief.

Stute, better known as the Susan Lucci of Hall of Fame nominees, is basking in the glow of his seventh nomination. This says more about the voting process than about Stute's qualifications. In fact, Stute is being subjected this year to a fourth variation of the evolving selection process.

"I've practiced a speech seven different times now, just in case," Stute said the other morning at Santa Anita. "I want to be ready."

It is not the purpose of this column to promote the fortunes of one Hall of Fame candidate over another. Their records stand in glowing testimony, requiring no embellishment. As a member of the Hall of Fame nominating committee, however, this reporter feels obliged to point out that once again the voting procedure has changed, and that serious issues of fairness persist.

Voters who fail to read the fine print on the ballot cover letter might think that they still are being subjected to the tortures of an either/or process, in which candidates must be evaluated as worthy, more worthy, or most worthy.

This year, the Hall of Fame executive committee has asked voters to vote either yea or nay on each of the three candidates in the four categories, with no restrictions. If a candidate receives a thumbs-up on 75 percent of the ballots cast, they are in the Hall of Fame, unless - and here is where the whole thing falls to pieces - another candidate receives more "yes" votes. In case of category ties, all those above 75 percent would enter.

This should leave Hall of Fame voters and racing fans scratching their skulls. Of what use, then, is the 75 percent threshold? If 75 percent ballot support is deemed appropriate for induction into the Hall of Fame, why not induct all candidates who achieve that threshold?

As a result of this baffling twist, voters may find themselves faced with a choice of three distinct approaches to the Hall of Fame process. They might:

* Vote as if the system were fair and functional by examining each of the 12 candidates on individual merit and writing "yes" only by those who satisfy the voter's criteria for inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

This would make sense if the system allowed each candidate to stand on his or her own merits. Unfortunately, it does not. As in the past, the candidates are asked to run one more "horse race" to make the Hall of Fame, by outpolling the other nominees in a winner-take-all format. Inside Information and Sky Beauty each could receive 150 of the possible 186 votes and be left out of the Hall of Fame because Silverbulletday received 151 votes. Sound fair? Didn't think so.

* Vote defensively, especially when there is in the mind of the voter a standout candidate in a particular category, no matter how strong the other candidates appear.

A voter may feel that Best Pal, Manila, and Silver Charm all belong in the Hall of Fame, but that Best Pal belongs above all. The way the vote system is contrived, voting honestly for the others actually could reduce Best Pal's chances, because not only does each candidate need a "yes" vote on at least 75 percent of the ballots, they also need to outpoll any other candidates who attain the 75 percent threshold. Only a flawed system would encourage such negative tactics.

* Eliminate the agonizing deliberation and vote offensively, because for the first time it is absolutely okay to vote for every single candidate on the 2006 ballot.

In the past, voters have been required to debate the merits of one candidate against another, a Sophie's choice that serves only to trivialize the process of elevating the game's greatest players to Hall of Fame status. For example, who in their right mind would argue the relative qualifications of three such distinct talents as Craig Perret, Eddie Maple, and Alex Solis? And why should we need to? Only the most cloistered curmudgeon - clinging to a mantra of "he ain't no Arcaro" - would question their fitness for the Hall of Fame.

But now, voters no longer need lie awake nights trying to decide if John Veitch's almost magical resurrection of racing fortunes for the Calumet and Darby Dan stables is more or less Hall of Fame worthy than Robert Wheeler's peerless work with the likes of Bug Brush, Miss Todd, and Track Robbery, or Mel Stute's half-century of soaring accomplishments with modestly bred and purchased bloodstock.

On this Hall of Fame ballot, the more speeches the better.