06/01/2005 12:00AM

In racing, 'fame' is relative


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Racing Hall of Fame, in case no one has noticed, can sometimes honor players who are still in the thick of the game. Nick Zito woke up Tuesday morning as a Hall of Famer, but he also had to go to the barn, just like the other 12 guys who have both a Hall of Fame pin and an active trainer's license.

In order of time spent on the walls of the Hall of Fame, those hard-working 12 are Allen Jerkens (elected in 1975), Frank Martin (1981), Jack Van Berg (1985), LeRoy Jolley (1987), Ron McAnally (1990), Bobby Frankel (1995), Bill Mott (1998), Wayne Lukas (1999), Neil Drysdale (2000), Richard Mandella (2001), Buddy Delp (2002), and Shug McGaughey (2004).

There are another seven Hall of Fame trainers retired from the field and hopefully living the high life. They include John Nerud (a member since 1972), Frank Whiteley (1978), Elliott Burch (1980), Mack Miller (1987), Scotty Schulhofer (1992), Tommy Kelly (1993), and Jimmy Croll (1994).

And don't forget the crossover talents. Though both were inducted mainly on the strength of their brilliant work with steeplechasers, Jonathan Sheppard (elected in 1990 and still going strong) and Sid Watters (2005) wrote indispensible chapters of Thoroughbred history. Sheppard trained Storm Cat, while Watters handled Hoist the Flag.

Zito will be the first to admit that this is no time to rest on his Hall of Fame laurels. Hall of Famers are a hungry bunch - that's how they got there in the first place - and two of the hungriest took a big bite out of Memorial Day in races on both sides of the continent.

Frankel and McAnally, whose barns abut at Hollywood Park, proved once again that a healthy strain of creative pessimism is a necessary Hall of Fame component. The glass is not only half empty, it also needs a rinse.

At Belmont, where Frankel unveiled reigning Horse of the Year Ghostzapper in the Metropolitan Handicap, the trainer was "nervous" and "worried" about the return of his near-flawless champion. Ghostzapper responded with a performance of such breathtaking power that the remainder of the season would seem a foregone conclusion.

At Hollywood Park, leading up to Monday's prestigious Gamely Handicap at nine furlongs on the grass, McAnally was inclined to pass the race if Frankel entered Megahertz. When Megahertz stayed in the barn, McAnally weighed in with Mea Domina and Solar Echo, who between them had won only a single small stakes event.

"I'm not sure Mea Domina can go that far," McAnally said. "As for Solar Echo, the distance would be no problem if I didn't think she was a short horse going into the race."

Oh ye of little faith. Mea Domina and Solar Echo ran one-two in the Gamely, giving their owner and breeder, Janis Whitham, a remarkable Grade 1 sweep. It has happened for an owner before - most recently on the Southern California circuit in the 2004 Eddie Read Handicap, when Julio Canani sent out Special Ring and Bayamo to go one-two for Prestonwood in the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar - but for homebreds to turn the trick is highly unusual. The most dramatic example occurred in 1968 at Hollywood Park, when William Haggin Perry and trainer Jim Maloney dominated the Vanity Handicap, going one-two-three with Gamely, Princessnesian, and Dester Law.

Of all the news this week, however, the return of Ghostzapper is by far the most significant. Since the Eclipse Awards were christened in 1971, the Horse of the Year title has been won by a 4-year-old on 10 different occasions. Six of those have returned the following season to defend the throne, including Ghostzapper. Until now, all but Forego failed. The others who tried included All Along, Lady's Secret, Ferdinand, and Azeri.

With such a daunting precedent, Frankel and owner Frank Stronach deserve credit for keeping Ghostzapper in the game. The most anyone can ask is that he would appear once a month from now until the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park on Oct. 29, and that seems to be Frankel's general plan. Still, there is a chance Ghostzapper will end up the least-known great horse in the recent history of American racing.

In this age of wall-to-wall sports on TV, Ghostzapper has been fully exposed exactly once on a nationally televised network program - the 2004 Breeders' Cup. Ghostzapper's Met Mile was basically a tree falling in an empty forest, available on nothing more substantial than simulcast intertrack, local OTB stations, and TVG. If Ghostzapper's next two races are the Suburban and the Whitney, that will put him on ESPN and ESPN2 (next-day delayed), according to the NTRA's television schedule.

Then, if Frankel sticks to his plan and once again uses the Woodward Stakes as the final step to the Breeders' Cup Classic, Ghostzapper will be as invisible as his name implies. According to the NTRA, there is no national commercial telecast of the Woodward planned at all.

While Nick Zito earned his way into the Hall of Fame through the accomplishments of his horses, his regular television presence during Triple Crown seasons certainly helped keep his name in lights. Ghostzapper has all the markings of a first-round Hall of Famer himself, but when he makes it, in 2011, the sporting public will be hard-pressed to remember what the fuss was all about.