05/30/2007 12:00AM

Hall process needs overhaul


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Let there be no misunderstanding. The jockey, trainer, and two horses elected this week to the racing Hall of Fame were not the only qualified candidates on the ballots. They were elected to the Hall of Fame because the other jockeys, trainers, and horses on the ballot got fewer votes. It's as simple as that.

But it shouldn't be. The process of elevating the most accomplished players of the Thoroughbred racing game to Hall of Fame status should not be modeled after high-school cheerleader elections. It is not a beauty contest, a popularity contest, nor even a clash of opposing political platforms. A candidate for the Hall of Fame - any hall of fame - should be held to a set of standards. Either they are worthy of the Hall of Fame, or they are not. If they are, they're in.

Instead, as one Hall of Fame official once put it, candidates are asked to win "one last race" to gain entry. And so, as was announced this week, 177 ballots were cast in four categories, with pluralities in each category for Jose Santos, John Veitch, Mom's Command, and Silver Charm.

(At this point, it is only proper to note that this writer is part of the 16-member Hall of Fame nominating committee that presented this year's ballot of candidates to the voters, which might surprise his grade-school teachers, who were obliged to report that he did not work particularly well with others.)

Since the Hall of Fame voting totals are not announced, it is possible that Santos, Veitch, Mom's Command, and Silver Charm all won in a landslide. It is also possible that they squeaked through by a vote or two, but that does not matter. They won this particular "race" according to the rules, and their Hall of Fame plaques will give off the same transcendent glow that emanates from those of Secretariat, Twilight Tear, Arcaro, and Fitzsimmons on the walls of the National Racing Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

If nothing else, the voting process is consistent with the larger, zero-sum world of horse racing, in which each race is populated by only one winner and a collection of losers.

It is a shame, though, that the Hall of Fame can't find a way to wean itself from the "horse race" style of balloting. It would be best, and more historically honest, to judge the candidates individually, letting each voter apply what they consider to be Hall of Fame standards. As it stands, the current system is not much different from the old "Peanuts" panel, in which Lucy attacks Charlie Brown with the question, "Who do you like better? Your mother or your father?"

In the 2007 category of females, Hall of Fame voters had to decide who they liked better - Silverbulletday, Inside Information, Sky Beauty, or Mom's Command. Those who settled upon Mom's Command had to painfully disregard Inside Information's 14 wins from 17 starts and 13 1/2-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. They had to shy away from Sky Beauty's 15 wins in 21 starts and her triumph under 130 pounds in the Ruffian Handicap. They had to ignore Silverbulletday's 15 victories in 23 starts and back-to-back Eclipse Award championships.

Likewise, voters had to swallow the fact that they could not vote for the brilliant, nearly unbeatable grass horse Manila and the durable gelding Best Pal as well as the Derby, Preakness, and Dubai World Cup champion Silver Charm. Nor could they split their votes among West Coast superstars Gary Jones and Bob Wheeler along with the East's John Veitch. And in order to put Jose Santos where he belonged, it was necessary to say no, not this time, to such household names as Randy Romero and Alex Solis.

Unfair, unfair, unfair . . . to the voters, the players, and to the everlasting history of the game itself. As the system stands right now, worthy candidates are being withheld from the limited ballots, creating an embarrassing backlog, a shadow Hall of Fame, that will grow only larger as the years pass. And there is no way that allowing only one entry from each of the four categories will relieve the pressure.

In the near future, such horses as Azeri, Ouija Board, Ghostzapper, Lost in the Fog, Ashado, Mineshaft, and Smarty Jones will be tossed onto the pile of names already buried by the process of limited nominees and single winners, names like Housebuster, Lure, Open Mind, and Estrapade.

Certainly, some candidates benefit by a longer lens of consideration. Historical perspective is a tool that most sporting halls of fame use to their advantage. In time, horses like Tiznow and Point Given surely will gain support, and the accomplishments of a mare like Safely Kept look better as the years pass, especially since there has been nothing remotely as marvelous to come along since she left the stage.

But if the current system of election persists, such grand runners will remain in limbo, a Hall of Fame in perpetual waiting. The people running the Hall of Fame have tinkered with the process over the past few years - moving deck chairs on the Titanic - without addressing fundamental flaws. It is time to fix the boat and revel in the Who's Who of the Hall of Fame, rather than fret over the nuts and bolts of how they got there.