08/13/2009 11:00PM

Maple addresses a critical need


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - At their best, Hall of Fame ceremonies accomplish two things. They not only recognize the very best individuals in a sport for the excellence of their lifetime achievements, but they also provide an opportunity for those being honored to use their moment in the spotlight to try to encourage that sport to do the right things.

D. Wayne Lukas said as much in his remarks Friday morning at the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, where Lukas introduced trainer Bob Baffert in the morning's final presentation. Channeling the Spider-Man credo that "With great power comes great responsibility," Lukas encouraged Baffert to use his new status as a Hall of Famer to work for the betterment of the sport.

By those standards, perhaps the highlight of the morning came at the end of the acceptance speech delivered by the former jockey Eddie Maple, who was inducted 11 years after his retirement following a 33-year career and 4,398 victories. Since then, Maple and his wife of nearly 40 years, Kate, have operated equestrian centers in the Carolinas. He currently is the general manager of the Plantation Equestrian Boarding and Teaching Center, which he described as being "just down the road from Hilton Head Island."

Rather than finish his speech by talking about himself and what the honor meant to him, Maple asked his audience to consider the plight of horses at the end of their careers. While there are quite a few angelic groups that have made progress in establishing privately-funded retirement facilities for retired racers, the industry as a whole has done little in unison and nowhere near enough in the aggregate.

Maple said that the process has to begin with owners and breeders, and he's absolutely right. As owning racehorses has increasingly become a speculative investment rather than a passion, the sense of being responsible for the animals one brings into the world and races has in many cases evaporated.

"Every racehorse deserves a comfortable home," Maple said simply. "This is as vital to the integrity of our sport as any issue the industry talks about."

Another ideal that was touched on was the definition of greatness in the racehorse, raised by Charlie Fenwick, who was both the trainer and the jockey of Ben Nevis II, who on Friday became the 16th steeplechaser inducted into the Hall. Unbeaten in America, where he won two runnings of the Maryland Hunt Cup, Ben Nevis II failed to complete the course in the 1979 Grand National at Aintree in England, then returned the next year to win that grueling 4 1/2-mile race by 20 lengths.

Fenwick talked about truly great horses running often and winning under adverse conditions during full careers, something too often forgotten in a current racing world where top horses are sometimes handled and managed as if made of glass during brief careers designed to make them expensive stallion prospects without fully proving themselves.

During a break in the proceedings, I ran into Baffert outside the ceremonies, where he had just watched a video tribute to another inductee and one of the best horses he trained, Silverbulletday. The champion 2-year-old filly of 1998 and champion 3-year-old filly of 1999 won 15 of 23 career starts in 25 months, running at 10 different tracks in three different time zones.

"I'd almost forgotten how much she ran," he said, shaking his head in admiration of her. "That's how we used to do it. Wayne [Lukas] always told me that - run 'em when they're good. Nowadays you've got some guy in an office in New York telling you to wait 10 weeks to run them so they don't bounce."

The short careers of some recent champions are going to present some interesting choices for Hall of Fame voters in the years ahead. There's already a backlog of deserving fillies who should have been voted in a decade ago, such as Open Mind and Sky Beauty, and recent champions such as Azeri, Ashado, Ouija Board, and Zenyatta will be automatic selections. (Rachel Alexandra's already in that territory too.) On the male side, it gets tougher. Horses such as Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Bernardini will soon be eligible and get some support, but if they didn't even do enough to be named the Horse of the Year during their one season of stardom before early retirement, are they really Hall of Fame material?

At least their feelings won't be hurt if they don't get in, and at least they all have extremely comfortable retirement homes as stallions at lush Kentucky nurseries. But as Eddie Maple said, it's way past time for racing to get serious about taking care of the thousands and thousands of other horses who didn't turn out quite so well.