04/27/2016 2:46PM

Hall's 2016 inductees favor class of 1976


In 1976, the good people at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs welcomed into their Hall of Fame a list of transcendent personalities that included Ruffian, Northern Dancer, Susan’s Girl, Woody Stephens, and Braulio Baeza.

Ruffian had become the symbol for the wrenching yin and yang of the sport, embodying all things glorious and sad. Northern Dancer, a champion of two nations, was on his way to becoming the most important stallion of the century, while Susan’s Girl set an impossible standard for mares since then to follow: 29 wins, 25 other placings, and three championships over five memorable seasons.

Stephens already was an iconic version of the classic Kentucky hardboot, with his five straight Belmonts yet to come. As for Baeza, it is impossible to forget how beautiful he was in the saddle, and how Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, and Arts and Letters answered to his touch.

It is therefore highly subjective but fairly safe to state that no Hall of Fame class since ’76 has been of such a richly satisfying vintage … until now.

On Aug. 12, in the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion just around the corner from the National Museum, the Hall of Fame ceremonies will be both SRO and OMG when Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Steve Asmussen, and Ramon Dominguez are honored with induction.

This is a Broadway musical with nothing but show-stoppers, a four-course chocolate meal. Any one of the four would have commanded the stage in a given Hall of Fame year. Group them together in the same class photo, and it will look like the credits from “Ocean’s Eleven.” Who do you put first – Clooney, Pitt, or Damon? And what do you do with Julia Roberts?

Their accomplishments make for easy reading: A trainer with more than 7,000 winners and the Horse of the Year for three straight seasons. A jockey with three Eclipse Awards and five national titles by the age of 36. Two mares who dominated the conversation like no pair of champions since Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

And yet their stories are rich far beyond their stats, tumultuous, poignant, brushing near tragic by turns.

No one ever will feel sorry for Asmussen, a man of intense moods and dense protective shell who can be engaging in conversation and forthcoming about his profession, or not. Still, when his career was put on the line with the assault from PETA and The New York Times, it was hard not to worry if such Kafkaesque treatment might be awaiting us all someday if the right – or wrong – institution is crossed.

That nothing of earth-shattering substance came of the controversy was neither a surprise nor very big news. PETA has yet to admit that stuff on its face is egg, and there are those in the sport who insist on beating a dead investigation. Proof, fortunately, is a harsh and demanding mistress.

So is head trauma, which is why Ramon Dominguez was forced to walk away from the job he loved and did so alarmingly well. His accident at Aqueduct in January 2013 was horrifying. Dominguez could have suffered the same fate as George Woolf, Jack Westrope, or Avelino Gomez, jockeys killed in action before the Hall of Fame called.

There have been any number of rogues and rascals admitted to the Hall of Fame. It only takes a few minutes in the presence of Dominguez to know that he is not among them. Whatever he does with the rest of his life will reflect well upon the sport, for it is racing’s good fortune that Dominguez is alive and well and able to stand before the Hall of Fame audience to accept his honor.

As for the mares, it is fitting that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra enter the Hall arm in arm. Their dominance during those heady seasons of 2008, 2009, and 2010 marked a pivot in the way the racing game was perceived by the general public and appreciated on the burgeoning social-media scene. Their people made them accessible – in both digital and real-world platforms – and their combined record of 32 wins and six seconds from 39 starts in top company speaks volumes. Susan’s Girl would have been proud.

Just as their careers overlapped, the post-racing fates of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra have intertwined. Zenyatta has lost two of her four foals to illness and injury. Rachel Alexandra’s two foals have thrived as racehorses – Rachel’s Valentina could be favored to emulate her dam in the Kentucky Oaks – but their deliveries were fraught with complications that threatened the mother’s life. For now, there are no plans to breed her again.

Neither Zenyatta nor Rachel Alexandra were unanimous choices of the 174 voters who cast Hall of Fame ballots. This will come as a surprise to anyone who either, a) is unfamiliar with human nature and the likely percentage of contrarians among a sample of 174 individuals, or b) unaware that the Hall of Fame election rules encourage voting strategies that undermine the integrity of the process.

Devoted fans of Victor Espinoza will feel that their man was overlooked, and who could argue? The same can be said for those who savor the worthy records of Craig Perret and Garrett Gomez, or the polished gem of David Whiteley’s training career, or who rank Kona Gold and English Channel as two of the finest specialists the game has ever seen.

Hopefully, their time will come.