03/02/2009 12:00AM

Hall of Fame induction rules need a rethink

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NEW YORK - If horses were voted into Racing's Hall of Fame the way that athletes are in most other sports, there might be three females and no males inducted this year. Instead, due to a misguided system under which exactly one horse of each sex must be enshrined each year, voters are left with two extremely difficult choices among three shaky males and three thoroughly deserving females.

The selection of either Best Pal, Point Given, or Tiznow - the three "Contemporary Male" nominees for the class of 2009 - will hardly darken the shrine at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. All were excellent racehorses, and the latter two were voted Horse of the Year titles in 2000 and 2001, respectively. This is the first year for Point Given on the ballot, but Best Pal and Tiznow have been on it before and been trounced in the voting, raising the question of why one must be elected. Each of the three has flaws that have kept them and similar nominees out of the pantheon in previous years.

Best Pal was a wonderful warrior and a crowd-pleaser; he earned $5.6omillion, which ranks 18th on the list of horses who ran at least once in North America; and his six Grade 1 victories include the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup. On the other hand, he won only 18 of 47 career starts and just 6 of his 22 Grade 1 starts, and was never a divisional champion.

Point Given has opposite drawbacks. His talent is beyond question, and his winning percentage was high, but longevity was not his strong suit: He made only 13 career starts (with 9 victories, 3 seconds, and a fifth in the Kentucky Derby) and he didn't race beyond August of his 3-year-old year, never facing older horses.

While he was Horse of the Year that season, that's not an honor that automatically puts you in the Hall. Since the award began in 1936, it has been won by 61 different horses. Of the 56 eligible to the Hall (recent winners must wait five years before becoming eligible), 40 have been elected but 16 have not, many of them horses who had just one outstanding season. The only two Horse of the Year winners from 1966 through 1989 who have not been elected to the Hall also were 3-year-olds who retired early - Conquistador Cielo (1982) and Spend a Buck (1985).

For now, I'm leaning toward Tiznow, whose 8-for-15 career record is a tad light but who won back-to-back Breeders' Cup Classics at 3 and 4, making him the only dual Classic winner. He also won two other Grade 1's - the Super Derby at 3 and the Santa Anita Handicap at 4.

Still, all three of the distaff nominees present more compelling cases and would probably all receive more votes than Tiznow or Point Given if racing used an up-or-down vote on each candidate instead of mandating one inductee of each sex each year. Open Mind, Sky Beauty, and Silverbulletday all would be deserving additions to the Hall, as would several others who were crowded out of the final ballot, including Life's Magic and Xtra Heat.

Unless the one-a-year rule is changed, it's going to take at least a decade to get squared up on the fillies, if ever. In addition to the four or five worthy nominees who won't get in this year, a murderer's row of more recent fillies will become eligible in the next few years, including Azeri, Ashado, Ouija Board, and still-active champions such as Indian Blessing and Zenyatta, whose stories aren't finished.

The Hall's executives have two reservations about changing the current system. They have said they fear that electing more than one inductee per category might appear to diminish the honor of getting in at all, but this seems unfounded. Honorees in other sports go into their Halls three or six at a time, even if there is more than one pitcher or wide receiver in the same class. Nor would it be without precedent: Under previous rules, Damascus and Secretariat both were elected to racing's shrine in 1974, and no one thinks less of either for having been honored in the same year.

The other concern is that one year you might have only two inductees and in another you might have nine. But so what? The tail of ceremony shouldn't wag the dog of merit. Besides, there are fungible Veterans' Committee and Steeplechase selections that could be accelerated or delayed if it's all that important to have more balanced classes of new inductees.

The most important thing is to prevent the kind of choices voters are facing this year: Being forced to pick one from a column A where perhaps none of the nominees is completely deserving, and one from a Column B where all of them are.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated Point Given's status as a Hall of Fame finalist. This year is his first as a finalist in the balloting.