03/09/2012 1:35PM

Hovdey: Wheeler's selection to Hall of Fame long overdue


Bob Wheeler said, “Come on in here.” So I did, and the smell of freshly tooled leather and all manner of softening oils filled my head. It was his tack room in a far corner of the Santa Anita backstretch, where Wheeler repaired, engraved, and fashioned all manner of belts, boots, and pieces of exotic tack when he wasn’t on the racetrack, imparting his 40 years or so years of Thoroughbred wisdom to the lucky horses in his care.

From such small moments lifetime impressions are chiseled in stone. That a man of such stature in his chosen, very difficult profession would while away his few idle hours creating leather works of both practicality and high craft defied convention. I asked Wheeler what thoughts went through his mind as his thick, strong fingers handled the marking wheels, awls, stamps, and punches. He flashed his Nebraska grin and said, “My horses.” That was good enough for me.

This was the late 1970’s, and by then Wheeler had been an iconic figure in the community of trainers for at least a couple of generations, his name uttered around the game in the same breath as Charlie Whittingham, Eddie Neloy, Bill Molter, Woody Stephens, and John Nerud.

The idea – if put forward at the time – that Robert Wheeler would have a hard time getting into the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame was one of those absurd propositions bouncing around bull sessions, like, “Will there ever be an African-American President?” or “Will the Stones ever stop touring?”

Yes, was the answer. Bob Wheeler – the trainer of Miss Todd, Old Pueblo, Track Robbery, The Axe II, Cadiz, Tompion, Taisez Vous, Dotted Swiss, B. Thoughtful, Bug Brush, and Silver Spoon, not to mention three different branches of the Whitney family horses at the same time -- would have a hard time getting into the Hall of Fame. But only if everything about getting into the Hall of Fame went hopelessly haywire.

So here’s Wheeler again, one of 10 names on the Hall of Fame ballot for 2012, 20 years after his death, sticking out like a vintage 12-cylinder Jaguar in a field Maybachs, Beemers, and high-end hybrids.

For the record, the other nine under consideration are the horses Housebuster, Ashado, Ghostzapper, and Xtra Heat, the jockeys John Velazquez, Garrett Gomez, Alex Solis, and Calvin Borel, and Wheeler’s Canadian counterpart, trainer Roger Attfield. The ballots will be mailed to the 183 voters across the nation in the upcoming week. Voters can vote for as many of the candidates they deem worthy. The top four vote-getters, plus ties, will earn induction into the Hall of Fame.

Wheeler has been a candidate several times before. He pretty much ends up with the same kind of support Ron Paul gets on a good day. At some point, you would think the Hall of Fame nominating committee would give up the struggle and submit to the will of the electorate, stashing his name on the shelf until he becomes eligible for consideration by the Historical Review Committee (this reporter is a member of both – so go ahead and smack around the messenger).

Several questions, though, are begged by Wheeler’s near perennial appearance on the ballot: Are the nominators just a bunch of stubborn old coots out of touch with their constituency? Are they dead wrong and delusional about Wheeler’s accomplishments and his significance as a horseman? Or do they – we – keep putting his name forward as a challenge to Hall of Fame voters to do their homework and treat the process as more than the latest overnight poll of hot-trending hashtags?

(Answers: probably, absolutely not, definitely.)

For anyone brave enough to dig into the process, it becomes clear that Wheeler’s legacy has been a victim of Hall of Fame selection rules that at various times have committed just about every transgression of fair play.

Once upon a time the inductees were determined over cocktails and cigars, when the racing world extended from upstate New York to central Kentucky. In those days, anything that happened after 1930 had to be either trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons or ridden by Eddie Arcaro to be taken seriously. I exaggerate only slightly.

Times change, and at some point the process was expanded, messily, to include voters qualified by their exposure to the sport. But their zip codes leaned heavily eastward, and horse racing west of the Pecos, beyond the rare Swaps, was still pretty much an entertaining rumor.

The Hall of Fame rules decreed that, for most of its history, there was selected only one trainer, one jockey, and two or three horses in a given year. As with most systems, it was designed with the convenience of the operators in mind, rather than the legitimacy of the results. Given the fact that in horse racing there are vastly more horses than trainers and significantly more trainers than jockeys, the final Hall of Fame votes would always be out of balance with the demographics of the game.

This was altered, to an extent, when the horse-human categories were dropped recently and all candidates required to stand shoulder to shoulder. On paper, this makes sense. Housebuster is either a worthy Hall of Fame candidate or he is not. Alex Solis either should be in the Hall of Fame or he should not. And there is no reason there can’t be two jockeys, three trainers, or four horses elevated at a single swing. Still, with only the top four vote-getters enshrined, the idea of submitting such individuals of quality to a head-to-head election is both demeaning and ultimately unfair.

By the time Wheeler had accumulated, by all reasonable standards, a r é sum é fit for the Hall of Fame, it was 1980 and he was into his 60s. Over the subsequent decade, as his health and statistics waned, the contemporary trainers voted into the Hall of Fame were named Frank Martin, Buddy Hirsch, Eddie Neloy, Harry Trotsek, Jack Van Berg, LeRoy Jolley, Mack Miller, Angel Penna, Ron McAnally, and Jim Maloney. Which one of those guys does not belong?

Robert Wheeler fit just fine with that company. And if his record stands for anything at all, he still does.