08/08/2012 2:42PM

Hovdey: Attfield, Wheeler finally get call from the Hall


If there is a particular secret to making the Hall of Fame as a Thoroughbred trainer, it’s well kept.

For instance, you can assemble a handsome collection of Breeders’ Cup trophies over a long career, win a classic, or train horses to do things no other horse has done before, yet the Hall will fail to recognize men like Michael Dickinson, Julio Canani, David Hofmans, Jay Robbins, or Mel Stute.

You can be a five-time national champion like Red McDaniel, or a regional legend like Buddy Raines or Frank Gomez or Richard Hazelton, but for some reason the Hall of Fame never calls.

And, though hard to believe, it does not even help to win the Triple Crown – yes, the Triple Crown – or else George Conway, Don Cameron, and Billy Turner would be safely enshrined. Maybe War Admiral, Count Fleet, and Seattle Slew trained themselves.

It is therefore with great delight to note that Robert Wheeler and Roger Attfield – the two trainers being inducted into the Hall of Fame class of 2012 on Friday at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs – fit none of the conventional categories for enshrinement through the traditional election process. And yet here they are.

For starters, one is dead and the other is Canadian (you in the back, can the wisecracks). Wheeler passed away in 1992 while Attfield has been doing the bulk of his business north of the border for decades. Wheeler’s most significant achievements took place in those musty days before the game needed a graded race system to tell the best races from the rest. Attfield, among many other things, has won Canada’s treasured Queen’s Plate a record-sharing eight times, and the Queen’s Plate, for all its glory, is a race restricted to Canadian-breds.

Let’s just say both Wheeler and Attfield exemplify the essence of classic horsemanship as applied to the narrowly rigorous demands of Thoroughbred racing, doing it so well for so long that their inclusion alongside such names as Jim Fitzsimmons, Charlie Whittingham, Hirsch Jacobs, Preston Burch, and John Nerud feels as right as rain. The support of the Hall of Fame electorate finally caught up with reality of what Wheeler and Attfield have meant to the sport.

Anyway, Attfield isn’t really Canadian. Now 72, he was born in Newbury, England, and emigrated, as the restless English tend to do. He notes with pride that Lucien Laurin, a French-Canadian, preceded him into the Hall of Fame, but Attfield’s profile more closely fits with jockey Avelino Gomez, the Cuban flame whose Hall of Fame career soared in both America and Canada.

Reached on Wednesday, Attfield confessed he had yet to give much thought to what he would be saying Friday at the induction ceremony. He had an excuse, since at that moment he was maneuvering around London where his very significant other, Tina Konyot, had just finished competing with the U.S. Olympic equestrian team in dressage. They finished sixth to Great Britain.

“I guess I’d better think about a speech on the plane, hadn’t I?” Attfield said. “I could always give the Allen Jerkens speech: ‘Thank you very much.’ ”

Thank you would be fine, since Attfield’s runners have done most of the talking for the past 41 years. Ever the gent, he waited until the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs to win the biggest U.S. race of his career, with Perfect Shirl, at which point Hall of Fame voters everywhere slapped foreheads and proclaimed, “Of course – Roger Attfield!”

“There are some great people and great horses in the Hall of Fame,” Attfield said. “That’s what makes it so special. I was tickled pink just having been nominated.”

Just being nominated was never enough for those who knew Wheeler, whose best horses included Silver Spoon, Bug Brush, and Tompion. He will be represented at the ceremony by his daughter, Sidney Wheeler, and assorted grandchildren, while his friends and colleagues back in California savor the overdue recognition.

Among them is Dennis Patterson, who was 19 in 1955 when he went to work as a first-string groom and all-around hand for Wheeler at Santa Anita Park.

“I’d been wanting to work for him and finally got the courage to ask him,” Patterson said this week. “When he hired me it was like getting accepted to college.”

The young Patterson ended up rubbing Miss Todd and Old Pueblo, who between them won 11 stakes for Wheeler.

“He knew what a horse wanted before the horse knew it,” Patterson said. “He just enjoyed being around horses, and I sure enjoyed being around him. When I left to go on my own he told me my job was always there if I wanted to come back. But like I said, I considered that time with him my higher education. He wrote the book and I read the book. I was just hoping that some of it would rub off.”

Patterson, 76, is still training, although his health has forced him to rely on his son, Bill Patterson, for more of the work around their stable at Golden Gate Fields. Patterson was happy to hear Wheeler will be entering the Hall of Fame on Friday, since the barn has a runner in the eighth race at Santa Rosa, the 7-year-old mare For Sure for Sure.

“How about that, after more than fifty years since going to work for him to have one in on the day he goes in the Hall of Fame,” Patterson said. “I’ll dedicate that race to him, and it’d be something if we could get it done.”