02/27/2009 1:00AM

Maple worthy of Hall, not tears


If Eddie Maple is going to be elected to the Hall of Fame this time around, he needs a hook, a sob story, a reason for voters to cuddle up. Just look at the opposition.

Alex Solis, reborn after a serious injury at age 44, is a battle-scarred veteran with more than $200 million in purses, three Breeders' Cup wins, a Preakness, a wine label, and a recurring part on a reality TV show. You can't buy publicity like that.

Randy Romero, who sacrificed his health for his job, was Personal Ensign's jockey, won nearly 4,300 races, and had his own dramatic television exposure when HBO's "Real Sports" looked at the dark side of reducing among jockeys.

It should be enough that Maple, who turned 60 last November, can lay claim to a first-rate career of nearly 33 years that included 4,398 wins on the toughest circuits of the East and Midwest. Two of those wins came in the Belmont Stakes, and it easily would have been three had Maple not fractured his collarbone only days before Conquistador Cielo's romp in 1982. Maple was also the last jockey to ride Secretariat, which should be enough to get any man a drink.

In terms of overall stats, there are only nine retired jockeys ranked ahead of Maple in both wins and purse earnings, and eight of them are in the Hall of Fame.

While he rode, Maple was widely respected among his peers, active in safety and welfare issues, and always ready and willing to be an articulate, cool-headed advocate for his fellow riders. He's not bad-looking either, and he still sits a horse pretty good, which is exactly what he was doing when he answered his mobile phone Friday afternoon.

"I'm sitting on a 3-year-old paint filly," Maple reported. "I've got two attractive women with me. And we're exploring a couple of trails here in South Carolina, not far from Hilton Head."

Okay, see, there's the problem. Nobody's going to feel sorry for a guy with a job description like that. For the last two years, Maple has been the manager of the Rose Hill Plantation Equestrian Center, taking care of a 35-horse barn, training, teaching, and administrating. The facility is part of a 700-acre private recreation and residential community that also lays claim to the Rose Hill Mansion, a fully restored, 10,000-square-foot specimen of Gothic Revival architecture whose construction was interrupted by the Civil War. Maple and his wife, Kate, do not live there, but it's in the neighborhood, making it tough to build a case for a Hall of Fame pity vote.

"Tell them you called me and no one answered the phone," Maple suggested, trying to help the cause. In the background, there was the soft shuffle of strolling horses. "Tell them I'm in Bluffton, South Carolina. Nobody's ever heard of that. Tell them it's Old Bluffton."

It's no use. Maple is one of those rare individuals who seem anointed with good fortune and the grace to wear it well, even though they work just as hard as anyone else. Beyond his considerable accomplishments as rider of such horses as Alydar, Riva Ridge, Temperence Hill, De la Rose, Carr de Naskra, Devil's Bag, Forty Niner, and current Hall of Fame nominee Sky Beauty, he deserves special praise for his physical resilience. For those 33 years, Maple averaged more than 1,000 mounts a year.

After Eddie's retirement in 1998, the Maples owned and operated a home and garden supply store on Long Island. When their two sons relocated to Atlanta, mom and dad sold the store and headed south, landing in tidal marsh country, not far from Hilton Head.

"There's a lot of transplants down here, folks from New Jersey," Maple said. "I talk to a lot of groups around here, and it refreshes their memories about racing."

The fact that Maple has made the ballot six times - most recently in 2006 - is both a blessing, and a curse. Maple's career should be celebrated as often as possible, as it was when he received both the George Woolf Award in 1995 and the Mike Venezia Award in 1998, and being nominated to the Hall of Fame is a good way to do it.

The Hall of Fame voting system, however, is stacked against a deserving candidate like Maple, whose career ended more than a decade ago. When a name appears on the ballot, year after year, voters tend to get used to not voting for that name in sufficient numbers. Enlightened voters are aware that all of the candidates on the ballot are deemed Hall-worthy by the 16-member nominating committee. Unfortunately, those voters are handcuffed by the rigid rules that allow them to vote for only one candidate, meaning they consciously must vote against the others.

There will be two Hall of Fame-quality riders left behind again after the current balloting has ended, and their chances - though not their reputations - will dwindle further in the coming years. Garrett Gomez is currently eligible and will soon make the ballot. In 2010, both John Velazquez and Robbie Albarado become eligible for nomination to the Hall. Maple, the consummate pro, tries not to fight it.

"If I ever get in, by that time there may not be anybody left in my family," Maple cracked. "But truly, it's an honor for my name to come up again. I just figured after the last time a couple years ago, that was it."

Maybe not.