04/21/2005 11:00PM

Hall of Fame voting still needs work

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NEW YORK - If you think picking a Kentucky Derby winner is a head-scratcher, try filling out this year's Hall of Fame ballot.

While none of the categories is easy, the Male Contemporary Horse lineup is the toughest of all. The candidates are Best Pal, Housebuster, Lure, Manila, and Silver Charm. You can vote for up to three of them, though only one can get in, and only if he is named on at least 75 percent of the ballots, unless there's an absolute dead heat among two or more who are named on at least 75 percent of the ballots.

If that last sentence made your head spin, well, there's the problem. While the Hall of Fame's guardians have broadened the voting base, upgraded the information provided to voters, and improved the nominating system, they have implemented a voting system that tries to have it both ways.

In most previous years, there was a simple system of electing the one candidate from each category who got the most votes, whether he was the choice of 22 percent or 99 percent of the voters. It was widely suggested that a system more like baseball's be adopted, where a threshold of approval such as 75 percent be used. The idea was to put in all the horses for whom there was broad support rather than having a yearly popularity contest.

Unfortunately, the Hall added the 75 percent threshold but failed to eliminate the one-per-category limit, except for dead heats, and then further complicated things by limiting selections to three of the five nominees. The whole thing should be streamlined as follows: Five nominees per category, vote for as many as you want, and anyone who gets 75 percent or more gets in. While this theoretically means you could have 20 new inductees one year and zero the next, it won't really work out that way and it's the cleanest and fairest way to go.

Under the old one-per-category, no-threshold system, it would have been a lot easier this year. Limited to one horse, most voters would probably pick Silver Charm, and rightly so: 12 for 24, $6.9 million, and 11 graded-stakes victories including a Derby, Preakness, and Dubai World Cup. He's supposed to be automatic.

What of the other four? Wait until next year yet again? Best Pal is in his fourth year of eligibility, Lure in his sixth, Housebuster in his ninth, and Manila in his 14th. All have a legitimate case, but under the current system, none will get in until there's a year when no one like Silver Charm becomes eligible for the first time. They deserve better.

Best Pal has perhaps both the strongest and weakest credentials in the quartet. His 18 victories, six Grade 1's, and $5.6 million in earnings are best in the group, but he also lost 29 races and was never a divisional champion. Does a horse belong in the Hall of Fame if he was never the best in his division? There is precedent, including Alydar, and the depth and breadth of his 47-race career give him extra points.

Housebuster suffers from a persistent bias against honoring pure sprinters, and his career unfortunately ended with a ninth-place finish at 2-5 in his lone Breeders' Cup appearance. Before that, however, he won 15 of 21 starts and 14 stakes races including the Withers, Jerome, Carter, De Francis, and Forego, and ran second to champions Unbridled, Black Tie Affair, and Criminal Type. Unless there's a flat-out rule against sprinters, he belongs.

Lure, like Best Pal, never won an Eclipse Award but if there were a category for grass miler he would have won, in 1992 and 1993, the years he won back-to-back Breeders' Cup Miles. In 18 career grass starts, he won 11 times with six seconds. Manila, the 1986 grass champion, did everything you can ask of an American grass horse, including an 11-race streak in 1986-87 when he won 10 stakes races including the Turf Classic, Arlington Million, two United Nations, and the Breeders' Cup Turf.

I would vote for all five if the rules permitted. Instead, I'm leaning toward Silver Charm, Housebuster, and Manila this time around, fully expecting only Silver Charm to get in, and hoping the rules can be changed so that the other worthy nominees will get their due before another four to 14 years go by.