08/11/2010 12:30PM

Hall of Fame ceremony a celebration of racing memories

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Barbara D. Livingston
Point Given won two legs of the Triple Crown, the Travers, Hakell, and Santa Anita Derby in his championship year.

Let’s hear it for the Hall of Fame class of 2010, featuring something for everyone, to be inducted in Saratoga Springs on Friday, which just happens to be the 13th of the month.

There wasn’t much unlucky, though, about Point Given or Azeri, two supremely talented individuals who ruled the American roost in 2001 and 2002 as consecutive Horses of the Year. Best Pal made his own luck, over six seasons and into a seventh, although it could be argued that with a little break around the turn of the 1991 Kentucky Derby, the Cal-bred gelding could have added America’s most famous race to his 13 other stakes wins of significance.

As for Harry Bassett, we’ll have to take the word of the Hall of Fame historic review committee (of which I am a member), who make their judgments regarding such 19th-century warriors based upon the evidence supplied by black-and-white photographs and yellowed copies of The Morning Telegraph. Trust us, he could run.

Azeri’s elevation to the Hall of Fame was inevitable, given her seamless string of near-perfection over the 2002 and 2003 campaigns for trainer Laura de Seroux. Her run of 14 wins from her first 16 starts looks pretty darn good, even in the broad shadow cast these days by the 18-0 Zenyatta. And certainly no one held Azeri’s 2004 record of 3 for 8 under Wayne Lukas against her, ambitiously campaigned as she was by managing owner Michael Paulson after returning from a soft tissue injury.

Point Given never raced past August of his 3-year-old season and never competed against older runners. Right there a number of Hall of Fame purists might turn their backs, preferring their candidates of limited exposure to look more like Man o’ War, who faced exactly one older horse in his 21 races. It helped that the one was Sir Barton.

At least there is precedent among fellow Hall of Famers. Colin never lost in 15 starts, all of them against fellow foals of 1905. Tim Tam entered racing lore when he went wrong trying to win the 1958 Triple Crown, while the Hollywood-handsome Majestic Prince, unbeaten at the time, suffered the same fate in 1969. Between them there was Northern Dancer, who had his own Triple Crown heartbreak in 1964, raced once more, and then got busy in the stallion barn.

With two legs of the Triple Crown, along with a Travers, a Haskell and the Santa Anita Derby, Point Given fits comfortably in Hall of Fame robes, and gives Bob Baffert his third Hall of Famer in the past four years, following Silver Charm and Silverbulletday. Among active trainers, only Neil Drysdale, Wayne Lukas and Ron McAnally have crafted three Hall of Fame careers, while Shug McGaughery tops them all with four.

Point Given, Best Pal, and Azeri all conform to traditional American Hall of Fame values, which is to say they made their reputations going long on dirt. Hopefully, there will be room in the hearts of voters one day to consider the lower classes. Sprinters like Housebuster, Safely Kept, and Kona Gold would hardly look out of place on Union Avenue, nor would the likes of Lure, Royal Heroine, and Estrapade, who gave the game so much pleasure while competing on grass.

So it goes with any honor based upon subjective opinions, fact-based as they may be. Omitted entirely from Hall of Fame ballot consideration this year were such trainers and jockeys as Jerry Hollendorfer, Garrett Gomez, John Velazquez, Robbie Albarado, Chris Antley, Billy Turner, Calvin Borel, Mel Stute, Neil Howard, and Craig Perret, while Alex Solis, Robert Wheeler and Gary Jones made the ballot, but not the grade.

What the 2010 ceremony gets, however, is choice. It may be just as well that Buster Millerick is not around – Native Diver’s trainer died in 1986 – otherwise the staff at the Hall of Fame would be rummaging the basement for a spitoon. Randy Romero is perhaps the most broadly popular of this year’s inductees, but it would be a mistake to let his health woes dwarf his considerable accomplishments in the saddle, and his acceptance speech will be both moving and long overdue.

As for Don Pierce, there is only one thing that would make his induction to the Hall of Fame any better, and that would be the presence of his best friend, Bill Shoemaker, who died in 2003. Finally, they’ll be hanging together on the wall.

Pierce never knew Shoe when he wasn’t in the Hall of Fame. Okay, maybe for a few months in early 1958, when Pierce came to California, a green kid from Oklahoma by way of New Mexico. Shoemaker was already The Man, and he entered the Hall of Fame that summer, at the age of 27. But the younger Pierce caught on quick, and before he was through he had a record in big-money races that rivaled the best the West has ever seen. You win the Santa Anita Handicap four times, you‘re doing something right.

The second of those four came in 1962 aboard the 5-year-old Physician, a son of Khaled trained by Lynn Boice, who also trained the second-stringers for noted owner Rex Ellsworth.

As such, Physician had to be coupled in the Santa Anita Handicap betting with Ellsworth’s formidable entry of Prove It, under Shoemaker, and Olden Times, ridden by Alex Maese. Pierce figured the other two would cut him in on the save, as was the custom of the time. If one of the entry won, they’d all three share in the pot. But Shoemaker looked at Physician’s chances and declared, “Pierce is out.”

“So at about the quarter pole, as I’m going by Shoemaker and Prove It on the outside, I hear him yell, ‘You’re in!’ ” Pierce said.

“I wish he was here,” Pierce said of his friend. “I really do. He would have been happy, and he‘d have had something to say. But didn’t want to open his mouth too much. I had a few stories about him, too.”

Pierce will be introduced by fellow Hall of Famer John Rotz, while Hall of Famer Gary Stevens offers the keynote address.

“I’m not going to say much,” Pierce promised. “With Rotz and Stevens up there, I’m sure they’ll roast me a little bit. It’s just an honor to be in there with a lot of great riders.”