08/05/2005 12:00AM

Hall veterans hail new class


DEL MAR, Calif. - On Monday morning in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a group of men will assemble at the National Racing Museum for a team photo. Some of them will be wearing matching blue blazers with identical pocket patches. Others, arriving straight from work, will be less formally attired. Any of them, however, would be able to answer a common question posed by local tourists:

"Hey, buddy, how do you get to the Hall of Fame?"

In order to mark properly the 50th anniversary of the Thorough-bred racing Hall of Fame, organizers have attempted to lure as many members as possible to celebrate the inductions of trainers Nick Zito and Sid Watters, steeplechase jockey Tommy Walsh, and steeplechase champion Lonesome Glory.

Of the 23 Hall of Fame trainers still living, 14 are scheduled to be in attendance, including Allen Jerkens, Tommy Kelly, Shug McGaughey, John Nerud, D.M. Smithwick, Frank Whiteley, Bill Mott, D. Wayne Lukas, Bobby Frankel, Jonathan Sheppard, LeRoy Jolley, and Scotty Schulhofer, in addition to Zito and Watters.

Besides Walsh, there are 27 Hall of Fame jockeys alive and kicking. He will be joined on Monday by 11 of them, including Joe Aitcheson, John Rotz, Pat Day, Gary Stevens, Bobby Ussery, Manuel Ycaza, Braulio Baeza, Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez, Jerry Bailey, and Ron Turcotte.

Out West, where Jimmy Durante Road plays the part of Union Avenue, Del Mar management will honor the Southern California contingent of the national Hall of Fame on Sunday afternoon, giving fans a chance to pay tribute to Jack Van Berg, Ron McAnally, Richard Mandella, Neil Drysdale, Eddie Delahoussaye, Mike Smith, Julie Krone, and Kent Desormeaux.

Several among the missing will be hard at work putting bread on the table, either adding to their Hall of Fame credentials - like Earlie Fires and Russell Baze - or otherwise occupied in second careers.

MacKenzie Miller certainly would be front and center with his Hall of Fame alumni if it were up to him. Unfortunately, health concerns keep him home in Lexington, Ky., but they don't keep him out of the loop, and neither of his newly honored colleagues are exactly strangers.

"Sid Watters and I were great friends," Miller recalled. "I love him dearly, and he was a great horseperson. Very conservative. Sid and I used to go into Manhattan every year to buy clothes, once in the spring and once in the fall. I always had to drive - he'd never even offer to pay the toll at the tunnel - but once in a while he did buy lunch."

Watters, who is 88, will get equal time to reply on Monday when he is honored for his work with such Thoroughbreds as Hoist the Flag and Slew o' Gold, as well as the outstanding jumpers Shadow Brook and Amber Diver.

The 83-year-old Miller was inducted in 1987 as he neared the end of a career full of such stakes stars as Java Gold, Winter's Tale, Snow Knight, Fit to Fight, Tentam, and Hero's Honor. Miller saved his greatest victory for last, winning the 1993 Kentucky Derby with Sea Hero for longtime patron Paul Mellon.

Miller retired in 1995 and Mellon soon phased out his racing string, which left Belmont Park's fabled Barn 12 up for grabs. It had been the Mellon stable barn since the glory days of the 1960's, when Hall of Famer Elliott Burch trained the likes of Fort Marcy, Arts and Letters, and Quadrangle.

"When I went to work for Paul Mellon in 1977, I said I'd like to stay in Barn 49, where I'd been for a long time," Miller recalled. "He said no, you're going to move. So I did, the next day."

When Miller left, Nick Zito moved in, and now the line of Hall of Fame trainers remains unbroken. Could it be the barn?

"That's really the best barn at Belmont, really first-class," Miller said. "It has two stables, covered on both ends, room for grazing. And it's close to the paddock, so you don't have to kill your grooms taking horses over. It was a lovely place. I'm sure Nick has it looking even better than when I was there, since he has considerably more money."

Miller spent most of his career as a private trainer, first for Charles Englehard and then for Mellon. Zito, on the other hand, has operated a public stable from the beginning.

"He's developed into a very good horse trainer," Miller said. "He came up through the ranks, and he learned an awful lot. I've always felt we learn by observation and association. A lot rubbed off on Nick, and I'm tickled to death for him."

Miller's heart is at Saratoga these days, and not only because of the Hall of Fame. Like many Hall of Famers, he left his mark there - winning both the Travers and the Whitney in 1987, the year of his induction - and still longs for the summer season.

"It was the best," Miller said. "I never had so much fun. You were tired most of the time, because you had sales at night, parties at night. And you still had 30 horses to train the next day."

Of course, he didn't really have to attend those parties.

"No," Miller replied. "But I chose to."