05/31/2007 11:00PM

Hall's election system still has flaws


NEW YORK - There's still plenty to argue about with the way that the Racing Hall of Fame selects and elects its nominees, but there should be no argument that the four contemporary figures who will be inducted this year are worthy and welcome additions to the shrine in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The winners of the four major categories, announced last Tuesday, are Silver Charm in the modern male horse division, Mom's Command among fillies and mares, trainer John Veitch, and jockey Jose Santos. While there were deserving runners-up in a voting system that unfortunately permits only one honoree per category, the four who made it all belong.

Silver Charm should have gotten in last year, when he missed narrowly under an even worse system that was in place, requiring both a majority vote and an overly high threshold percentage. A gray son of Silver Buck, owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis and trained by Bob Baffert, Silver Charm earned $6.9 million while winning 12 of 24 starts, including the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and the 1998 Dubai World Cup. He finished a close second in the 1997 Belmont and 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic, beaten less than a length in each. He also was that exceedingly rare champion who won graded stakes races at 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Mom's Command was one of four entirely deserving nominees in the female horse category, along with Sky Beauty, Inside Information, and Silverbulletday. In 1985, the Peter Fuller homebred Mom's Command swept the New York filly triple crown, added the Alabama for good measure, and suffered her only loss during that run to Lady's Secret in the Test. She won 11 of 16 career starts.

This division argues strongly for at least a one-time change in the rules to allow for multiple inductees from one division as a catchup remedy. At the mandated rate of one inductee per year, it could take nearly a decade to get all the deserving contemporary fillies into the Hall, and they should not be penalized for ill-advised procedural changes that interrupted the normal flow of inductees in prior years.

Veitch's induction is overdue. He is the early favorite to give the best speech at the ceremonies, given his strong views on the sport and his recent outstanding work as a television commentator and now the chief steward at Kentucky tracks, but he is being properly honored for his training achievements. He was the only eligible trainer of four Eclipse Award winners (Before Dawn, Hall of Famer Davona Dale, Our Mims, and Sunshine Forever) not already in the Hall, and that list does not even include his best horse, Alydar, a Hall of Famer himself.

Santos may be best known as Funny Cide's rider, but he made his biggest mark on the sport in the late 1980s and 1990s, when he amassed the bulk of his 4,083 winners and $187 million in purses. He combined patience and daring to forge a dramatic come-from-behind style that proved successful and influenced the entire Eastern riding colony.

Santos, who suffered numerous injuries in a February spill at Aqueduct that have put his career on hold, continues a long tradition of putting riders into the Hall while their careers are ongoing. Bill Shoemaker rode for 32 more years after his 1958 enshrinement. More recently, Jerry Bailey, Angel Cordero Jr., Pat Day, and Gary Stevens have been elected during the prime of their careers, and the current rules make jockeys eligible 20 years after they are first licensed.

This creates some awkward situations. Edgar Prado, a surefire inductee at some point, was on the ballot last year when no one made the cut under the harsh voting rules, then disappeared from it this year - despite winning his first Eclipse Award and Kentucky Derby in the meantime. He was kept off the ballot this year by nominators who apparently wanted to give older riders such as Santos and the thoroughly deserving Alex Solis a better chance, but this sort of gamesmanship undermines the integrity of the process.

Would it really be so terrible if in the future jockeys became eligible only upon their retirement, or perhaps their 50th birthday, instead of as early as their mid-30s? Other sports wait until their athletes are retired to salute them them this way, and it's the kind of honor that seems more appropriate to the end rather than the middle of a career.