Updated on 09/17/2011 1:27PM

Hall's one-per-category system falters


NEW YORK - If you think figuring out next Saturday's Kentucky Derby is a headache, try filling out this year's Hall of Fame ballot.

The Hall voting, which concluded Friday, in some ways might look like an easy pick four, with three three-way races and a four-way jockey bake-off. There may even be a couple of singles in the sequence - Skip Away should be a cinch in his first year of eligibility, and Shug McGaughey may be as well.

The problem is that these shouldn't be little races with four guaranteed inductees every year.

In other sports, prospective inductees are judged on their individual qualifications, with a threshold percentage of total votes required for each candidate, and the number of inductees can vary from year to year. There is no requirement that baseball's pantheon at Cooperstown induct one pitcher, one catcher, one infielder, and one outfielder each season. Yet in racing, one trainer, one jockey, one male horse, and one female horse must be chosen, even if there are three worthy trainers and no worthy fillies.

This becomes even more distorted over time. It is unlikely that every two decades of racing yield precisely 20 deserving inductees in each category. The right numbers might be 30, 22, 18, and 10. The Hall, however, inducts exactly 20 of each, meaning a dozen might be unjustly both included and excluded every two decades.

Consider this year's ballot. McGaughey's total achievements make him an automatic and worthy selection, but that's not to say John Veitch and Nick Zito don't also belong. If the voters think they do, all three of them deserve to be voted in instead of being left to the hope that they will eventually get in when the competition is lighter in some future year.

Try picking among the riders Kent Desormeaux, Eddie Maple, Randy Romero, and Jose Santos. Santos and Desormeaux are eighth and ninth on the all-time earnings list. Maple had the most victories of the four at the start of this year. They all performed at a similarly high level in their prime. Why should exactly one of them get in instead of none, two, three, or all four?

Skip Away is a no-brainer, but not simply in comparison to Manila and Lure. Those two pose interesting cases, because rightly or wrongly, voters view horses who achieved their glory exclusively on the grass with some reservations. That's a question to be answered on its own merits, not by default when there's finally a year without a compelling dirt horse and one or the other slips through.

A system similar to baseball's was tried just once, in 1987. The Hall's guardians found it too unsettling when two trainers but no contemporary male horses made the cut, and the one-per-category rule was reinstated the next year. It's time to reconsider.

Derby favorite looks clear

You can stare at the past performances for days without picking the Derby winner this year, but the longer you look, there really shouldn't be any question about the morning-line favorite: Whether or not you like or plan to bet on The Cliff's Edge, he is likely to win a plurality of the parimutuel votes over Smarty Jones and Tapit.

He has a lot going for him in the popularity contest that decides favoritism: the top last-race Beyer Speed Figure in the field, a good-looking Blue Grass victory, two stakes victories over the Churchill Downs track last fall, and a two-time Derby-winning trainer in Zito. Those four factors trump Smarty Jones's 6-for-6 record, which deserves respect but has come at the expense of unglamorous competition and without contesting a Grade 1 race. Tapit will get plenty of support, for Michael Dickinson's wizardry and for giving the appearance of a horse with a lot of potential improvement ahead, but his lack of fast figures and his skimpy four-race resume will cost him mass appeal.

The highest-priced Derby favorite ever was Harlan's Holiday at 6-1 two years ago. The Cliff's Edge figures to be lower than that but not by much. He could well be only the fourth Derby favorite to go off at 4-1 or higher, joining Harlan's Holiday, Prairie Bayou at 4.40-1 in 1993, and the General Challenge-Excellent Meeting entry at 4.80-1 in 1999.

For what it's worth, high-priced favorites have a dismal Derby record: Only 11 Derby favorites have started at 3-1 or higher and all of them lost. Of the 49 Derby favorites who have won the race, the biggest price was Whirlaway at $7.80 in 1941.