05/31/2006 11:00PM

Quick fix for flawed voting system

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NEW YORK - The confusing and embarrassing results of this year's voting for the Racing Hall of Fame were the result of well-meaning but fatally flawed changes to an election procedure in need of change. The good news is that it can be fixed pretty easily so that recent wrongs can be righted as soon as next year.

Until two years ago, election was a simple matter of winning a plurality among the five nominees in each of four categories. Every year, a jockey, a trainer, a male and a female horse were inducted. The process was straightforward but unsound on two counts.

First, it assumed that there was exactly one Hall-worthy inductee each and every year, when in truth there might have been three in some years and zero in others. Who's to say that every decade there are precisely 10 jockeys or 10 fillies who merit enshrinement? Also, the plurality system in theory allowed someone to be inducted with only 21 percent of the vote in a five-way photo finish, and in practice at least one inductee did receive only 28 percent of the ballots one year.

So the system was changed to allow some flexibility in the number of inductees and to mandate approval from a majority of voters. The process was changed from a five-way bake-off to an up-or-down vote on three nominees in each category, with a 75 percent approval rate required. It might have worked if it had stopped there, but the Hall's executive committee stubbornly insisted on coupling the new procedure with the old rule that there could still be only one inductee per category. Even if one nominee received 99 percent thumbs-up and another got a mere 98 percent positive votes, only one could get in.

This latter rule, maintained over objections from many voters, had no rational basis other than keeping the induction ceremony tidy, as if it would be a terrible thing if one year there were a total of two inductees and another year there were six.

The other problem with limiting inductees to one per category each year is that it clearly tempted voters to withhold their approval from a second or third yes vote in a category where they had a passionate opinion. Let's say that this year, you thought that Silver Charm was a no-brainer, hands-down choice for induction (which he was). You might not have also given a thumbs-up to Best Pal or Manila, because what if your vote was the one that put one of those horses one vote ahead of Silver Charm in the category?

Such thinking has to be what garnered Silver Charm a nod from only 64 percent of the voters this year. How could 36 percent of these voters possibly justify voting no on a horse who won $6.9 million and 12 of 24 starts, 11 of them graded stakes, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Dubai World Cup? Either people were withholding their approval because they thought it would help Best Pal and Manila, or ballots were mistakenly mailed to golfing correspondents rather than racing writers.

There's a different problem in the filly division, where half a dozen qualified potential inductees are in a queue that gets longer with each year of the wrongheaded new system. Inside Information, Silverbullet-day, and Sky Beauty all have the credentials, and so do several others who didn't even make that final trio this year, including Mom's Com-mand, Open Mind, and Hollywood Wildcat. The one-per-category rule will keep most of these fillies unfairly waiting for years, especially as more recent possibilities such as Azeri and Ashado become eligible.

Frustration over the backlog is affecting the voting. One New England writer announced publicly that he was so angry that Mom's Command was not a finalist that he would not vote for any of this year's three otherwise deserving nominees

While a return to the predictability of exactly four inductees per year may seem appealing amid the current chaos, that would be a poor solution, merely reinstating the old problems. Instead, the current procedure needs two simple tweaks. First, lower the threshold of approval from 75 to either 60 percent or two-thirds (66.67 percent). Second, allow up to three inductees per category each year if they receive the requisite approval rating. If that means inducting three fillies rather than one next year, so be it, and it would only be fair after two years when no one from that group made the cut.

None of this is intended to diminish this year's three inductees - Bill Boland, Carl Hanford, and Cougar II - who were chosen by the Historic Review Committee in the absence of any elections from the contemporary nominees. It's just a good thing that the committee meets in even- rather than odd-numbered years, or there would have been no inductions at all this year despite so many worthy candidates.