03/17/2008 11:00PM

Hall of Fame decision spans two eras

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Hall of Fame voting for the Class of 2008 is under way, and ballots are in the hands of 184 voters. The deadline is April 4, giving the electorate plenty of time to chew over the categories of horses, jockeys, and especially trainers, which has been boiled down to an old-fashioned showdown between Carl Nafzger and Robert Wheeler.

In terms the broader public will understand, one of them represents the old guard, with a lifetime of experience and a polished resume that bridges the generations. The other candidate appeals to a younger, hipper racing crowd as an inspired orator with credentials to match. Rest assured, though, on the issue of a ringing phone at 3 a.m., there is no difference between the two. They'd both be on the way to the barn.

Nafzger, at 66, is very much the hot property, although he did say on Tuesday morning that his phone has gone strangely quiet compared to this time last year, when he was busy training champion 2-year-old and Derby favorite Street Sense.

"He who thinks he's conquered the world should wait till he's off the front page," Nafzger said, spinning off a dash of his Will Rogers wisdom.

Since he is coming off a season during which his horses won the Kentucky Derby, the Travers, and the Alabama Stakes, Nafzger's name will tend to jump off the ballot. Wheeler, on the other hand, requires a bit more work, since he died in 1993, at the age of 72, after a training career that lasted 55 years.

During that career, Wheeler won nearly every major stakes the West Coast had to offer, including back-to-back Santa Anita Derbies, three Santa Margaritas, a pair of Hollywood Gold Cups, and a bucket full of Oaks. In his heyday, Wheeler was mentioned in the same breath with Charlie Whittingham and Bill Molter when it came to developing stakes horses, and at one point he handled the California-based runners belonging to three different branches of the fabled Whitney family - John Hay Whitney's Greentree, Liz Tippett's Llangollen Farm, and C.V. Whitney himself.

"He had a gift, no question," said Sidney Wheeler, who rode the pony alongside her father during the last years of his life. "And if you think about it, for people who are really gifted, what they do seems to come naturally. Sometimes they can't explain it. I think it was hard for him to express to other people what he knew."

Wheeler enjoyed what can be accurately called his breakout year in 1959 when he beat the top colt Hillsdale with the C.V. Whitney filly Bug Brush in the San Antonio Handicap, and then stuffed her stablemate Silver Spoon down the throats of a bunch of colts in the Santa Anita Derby. Silver Spoon earned a championship in the year-end TRA poll.

That same year, the 18-year-old Carl Nafzger stopped riding bulls for a hobby around home in Texas and turned professional. This would seem an odd choice for any respectable young man who valued life and limb. But to hear Nafzger describe it, riding bulls can help one achieve a higher temporal plane.

"When you ride one of those real rank bulls, it's like a dream, like you float," Nafzger said. "And when you get off that bull, you might not even remember anything about it. But the exhilaration at that moment in your life is unbelievable."

About 10 years of such exhilaration was all Nafzger's body could handle. He started training in New Mexico in 1968, the same year Wheeler got a Prince Taj colt from France named Petrone. The following season, Wheeler trained Petrone to win California's two most important distance races - the San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita and Hollywood's Sunset Handicap.

"It might have been around 1974," Nafzger recalled. "Me and a friend who knew Bob Wheeler came out to California. We had a drink with Bob and bought a filly off him. She ran okay, but Bob was smarter than I was. And if he heard me say it, Bob would love it. He'd say, 'Hell, I know I'm supposed to be in the Hall of Fame. That dumb kid bought a horse offa me.' "

From 1977 through 1979, Wheeler won 17 major California stakes with the fillies B. Thoughtful and Taisez Vous. In 1982, Wheeler bade farewell to Track Robbery after taking eight stakes over two campaigns, including the Apple Blossom, the Vanity, and the Beverly Hills. Transferred to trainer John Russell, Track Robbery won the Spinster to clinch an Eclipse Award, but Russell never hesitated to give Wheeler full credit.

Three years before Wheeler's death, Nafzger seized the headlines with the emotional run of Unbridled in the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. Subsequent champions Banshee Breeze and Street Sense give him the edge in the priceless department of recent memory, not to mention an electorate that leans decidedly toward the East and Midwest.

Still, a Hall of Fame without a Bob Wheeler plaque will always seem a little light. While his record speaks volumes, his family may have the best perspective.

"When I look back on the man, knowing him when he was younger, the idea of the Hall of Fame probably never entered his mind," Sidney Wheeler said. "The rest of us thought we were completely out of touch, because he never said anything about it. And I think he often felt he didn't deserve it, because it was so easy for him. But later, when he was older, something came up about the Hall of Fame. And I heard him say, 'I just hope I'm around to see it.' "