03/13/2002 12:00AM

Hall has unfinished business

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Jack Westrope was America's leading rider in 1933, at the age of 15. Twenty-five years later, he was killed while trying to win the Hollywood Oaks, on June 19, 1958. Westrope's inclusion among the trio of nominees for this year's election to the Hall of Fame, 44 years after his death, can only mean one of three things:

1. A renewed appreciation of his record.

2. A lack of qualified candidates among more contemporary riders.

3. Stubborn old farts on the nominating committee.

As one of those proud SOF's, this reporter likes to see the past cleared up before the present is enshrined. Eddie Maple and Kent Desormeaux, the two other candidates for induction this year, are both great riders and fine gentlemen who deserve a place in the Hall. And because they are both very much with us - Maple is retired and Desormeaux just won the Santa Anita Handicap - there is a great temptation to let the dead rest and celebrate the living.

But the Hall of Fame, any hall of fame, is meant for the ages. Headlines are nice, but it's history that counts. A Racing Hall of Fame without a jockey like Jack Westrope enshrined comes up short of its mission. He has been on the ballot before, but do not read that as a rejection of his credentials. For most of its existence, the Hall of Fame election system has allowed for only one jockey to be elected each year, no matter how worthy the others are who may be eligible. The question, therefore, becomes sticky. Which one of the 58 jockeys enshrined since 1958 should have been excluded to make room for Westrope?

Certainly not the jockey elected in 1958. Bill Shoemaker, just shy of his 27th birthday, still had Westrope in the back of his mind when he was honored with induction that summer long ago. It was Shoemaker aboard the filly Midnight Date who swept past Westrope and his careening mount Well Away to win that tragic Hollywood Oaks.

Well Away, owned by King Ranch, was closing in on the leader, Sally Lee, at the time. Midnight Date and Nushie were closing from behind when, without warning, Well Away veered into the rail and sent Westrope flying.

"I didn't see it right when it happened," Shoemaker said this week from his home near Santa Anita. "It was about at the eighth pole. The ambulance was still there when we came back with the horses.

"I watched it later on the films," Shoemaker went on. "Westrope's filly was getting in, so he hit her left-handed. She went right into the whip, and into the rail."

The horse, being a creature of deep and abiding fears, has a sharply tuned mechanism for flight. Problem is, you never know which way they will fly when afraid. Some turn and run. Others try to plow right through the problem, seeking a safe haven, as they might when confronted with a barn fire. So, instead of moving away from the contact of the whip, sometimes they lean into it.

"Usually they'll let you know, and you have time to switch sticks,"

Shoemaker noted. "I guess Westrope didn't get a second chance. He hit the rail hard, on his back, at a real bad angle. He was the first guy I saw killed.

"You know it can happen any time," Shoemaker added. "But I know it had a mental effect on me for a while after that, especially when he was here today and gone tomorrow."

Even at the age of 40, Westrope was still a force to be reckoned with in the saddle. He had a reputation as a tough, big-money rider who never backed down. He was close friends with Eddie Arcaro and married to a movie star, which in those days was still pretty cool. He was also the jockey who was credited in some quarters as the first to employ the "acey-deucey" style of lowering the left stirrup to bank more effectively around the turns. Apparently, necessity was the mother of that invention.

"There were a lot of guys who rode with their left iron a little lower, but Westrope really dropped it," Shoemaker said. "He did it after he came back from getting hurt one time, and he couldn't bend his left knee all the way. His balance was still good, though, and other guys started copying him."

Well Away was Westrope's 17,479th mount. On the day he died, he had won 2,467 races. Only eight men had won more races than Westrope at the time - John Longden, Eddie Arcaro, Ted Atkinson, Johnny Adams, Ralph Neves, and Steve Brooks - and they are all in the Hall of Fame.

"Westrope was a great rider," Shoemaker said. "He really was."

He should know.