08/11/2010 11:43AM

Hall of Fame welcomes new class of great ones

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Barbara D. Livingston
Azeri, three times champion older female, was Horse of the Year in 2002.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Throughout his career, Don Pierce had the reputation of being the coolest guy in the race when the money was down. He’s hoping to maintain that composure on Friday, when he is, at long last, inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“I’m a pretty emotional guy. I don’t want to embarrass myself,” Pierce said earlier this week at Del Mar.

Fat chance of that happening. The inclusion of Pierce, made possible by the Hall of Fame’s historic review committee, was long overdue, recognition of his excellence during an era that was dominated by his close friend, the late Bill Shoemaker. Pierce won 3,546 races, including four runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap, before his retirement in 1984.

“I figured it had to happen some day,” said Pierce, 73. “I was on the ballot a couple of times in the 1980s, and then it was like they forgot about me, I guess. I don’t make much noise. I’m just glad it happened before I kicked the bucket. But, you know, if it was easy to get into, it wouldn’t be worth getting into.”

Pierce is part of a Hall of Fame class that has a decidedly California flavor. The historic review committee also went for Buster Millerick, best known as the trainer of three-time Hollywood Gold Cup winner Native Diver. The contemporary inductees include Azeri, Best Pal, and Point Given, all California-based runners. Jockey Randy Romero is also being inducted, as is the horse Harry Bassett, a two-time champion of the 1870s who, like Pierce and Millerick, was chosen by the historic review committee.

The ceremony, open to the public, begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time Friday at the newly renovated Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion. Seating is limited and is available on a first-come basis. The ceremony will be shown live on HRTV, and streamed live on the Internet at www.racingmuseum.org .

Pierce said he figures he’s going to be roasted a bit, both by John Rotz, the jockey who will introduce Pierce, and Gary Stevens, the keynote speaker, who played golf with Pierce just last week.

“He beat me, but I had to give him 12 shots,” Pierce said. “I give my grandmother 12 shots.”

Jockeys are usually the most popular of the inductees, as this year figures to be no exception, owing to the inclusion of Romero, 52, whose hard-luck career has endeared him to fans. Romero, who won 4,294 races, had the highest highs, including riding the unbeaten Personal Ensign to her dramatic victory in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and the lowest lows, including being badly burned in a hot box accident at Oaklawn Park in 1983, and thrown from Go for Wand when she suffered fatal injuries in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Romero undergoes kidney dialysis three times a week.

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year and a three-time divisional champion, won 17 of 24 starts, including 11 Grade 1 races and three consecutive runnings of the Apple Blossom.

Best Pal won the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic during a career that extended to age 8. He won 18 of 47 starts, 17 of those wins in stakes.

Point Given was the Horse of the Year and champion male 3-year-old of 2001, when he won the Preakness, Belmont, Santa Anita Derby, Haskell Invitational, and Travers.