07/19/2017 5:30PM

Reinhart: Tweaking the Hall of Fame process for the better

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Derick Giwner
Ron Burke has more wins and earnings than any trainer in the history of the sport, but he isn't in the Hall of Fame.

When it was announced that Jules Siegel and Margareta Wallenius-Kleberg were going to appear on the ballot for induction to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame for next year, my reaction was mixed.  While both potential inductees are certainly worthy of inclusion, I wondered why again no drivers or trainers appeared on the ballot, which seems to have become a common occurrence. 

After perusing the online Trotting & Pacing Guide on the USTA website, I found the lack of trainer and driver nominees even more curious given the fact that 16 of the top 25 drivers all-time in earnings and 23 of the top 25 trainers all-time in earnings have not yet been inducted.  Seeing this, I believe that the limited number of Hall of Fame inductees on a yearly basis is a one of a few easily-corrected negatives that currently exist in the sport.

Small Number of Inductees Create Backlog

Writing for Hoofbeats last year, current United States Harness Writers Association (USHWA) President Tim Bojarski included a quote from the Hall of Fame and Museum’s Elbridge T. Gerry Jr. that said, “Election to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame is the highest honor that is bestowed by our sport and enshrinees carry that recognition for the rest of their life.  For nominees to be considered, as (Hall of Famer) Norman Woolworth so aptly put it, ‘They must jump off the page’ with qualifications. The best way to judge a person’s eligibility is to ask the question, ‘Has he or she accomplished or contributed on the same level as those who preceded them for this highest honor?’”

While I certainly agree with Mr. Gerry (and Mr. Woolworth) about the need for a Hall of Famer to be the greatest of the great, I believe the USHWA Hall of Fame steering committee has gone too far in limiting the number of yearly inductees, creating an artificial and unnecessary backlog of deserving candidates.  An easy solution would be to ensure that at least one driver, a trainer, and owner or owner/breeder are always present on the ballot to be voted in.  The Pro Football Hall of Fame accomplishes something similar by always having four to eight inductees every year, ensuring that players, executives, and founders always find their way into the Hall in a timely fashion.

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If you look at trainers, since 2010 only Jimmy Takter has been deemed worthy of induction through the traditional process (Bruce Nickells was voted in by the steering committee’s Veterans provision), despite the fact that names like Linda Toscano, who could easily win her second Hambletonian this year with Walner, Trond Smedshammer, who won a Trotting Triple Crown, and Blair Burgess, who also won a Trotting Triple Crown along with multiple Meadowlands Paces, are not yet in the Hall of Fame.  These names are just a few examples of having credentials that certainly “jump off the page,” and could easily be voted in at any time.

Drivers face a similar hurdle, with only Dick Stillings, David Miller, and Brian Sears having found their way into Goshen’s hallowed hall since 2010.  Again, names like Luc Ouellette, a four-time Meadowlands driving champion and Driver of the Year in both the United States and Canada, or George Brennan, who is one of only seven drivers all-time to have driven the earners of over $160 million and a winner of the Hambletonian and Oaks in the same year, are on the outside looking in despite having credentials that “jump off the page.”

This backlog will only get worse as younger drivers and trainers whose credentials are already Hall of Fame-worthy – think Yannick Gingras, Tim Tetrick, Ron Burke, Casie Coleman, and the like - approach possible inductions as well.  Time will tell, but ensuring that at least one member from each group is on the finalist ballot every year will go a long way to solving it.

Further Transparency Needed

Former USHWA President Moira Fanning described the process for appearing on the ballot, which was created this year, as, “A Hall of Fame committee that selected 20 Hall-worthy people with standardized bios and achievements. The chapters could pick from them up to two people and if they pick two they could add a third of their own choosing.”

That is a well-thought-out process that I believe works well, but an extra layer of transparency for the general harness racing public would be to release the 20 names as “finalists,” and then at a later date they could be voted on with the percentages released as well.  I would liken it to what the Baseball Hall of Fame does, with an initial group of finalists disseminated, and then following the vote, the total votes and percentages that each finalist received from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America are released as well.  That way all of us could see who is being considered and how close they are.

Fan Input Would Be Welcome

If you’re not a member of an USHWA chapter, the only way to currently have your voice heard about a potential nominee is to contact someone who is a member and have them do it on your behalf.  I believe that the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame is way ahead of its southern counterpart here as they allow any member of the general public to send in a name (and biographical/statistical information) for debate by their induction committee.  The Pro Football Hall of Fame also has this provision, and while Fanning says a more fan-friendly option has been discussed without being implemented, I think it would be a new way to hear about potential inductees that could have slipped through the cracks.

Those are just three things that came to my mind about the current state of the Hall of Fame and USHWA’s stewardship of inductees.  I think that for the most part it’s handled very well and with the care and respect it needs, but with these issues fixed, I think it could be even better.