03/25/2005 12:00AM

Save one flaw, Hall of Fame gets it right


ARCADIA, Calif. - A trainer called this number the other day to thank the writer for getting him on the 2005 Hall of Fame ballot. Boy, did he get that wrong.

It was an understandable mistake, though. For years and years, there existed a lingering suspicion that members of racing's Hall of Fame were handpicked by a star chamber of tweedy gents fresh from the hunt, meeting behind closed doors in a high-paneled club room filled with cigar smoke and deep leather chairs somewhere in Saratoga Springs. Gaining entry to the Hall was supposedly a matter of who you knew, and how much they liked you as a dinner companion.

Well, maybe. But that was a long time ago. For the past 30 years or so, there has been an increasing transparency to the process, at least by traditional measures of nomination and voting. The nomination process itself, with its committee of 14 (including this writer) paring down finalists, remains a multi-layered affair, overly complicated and self-limiting. But the role of actual Hall of Fame voters has been greatly expanded, from a relatively small coterie of mainly Eastern racing writers to a broad spectrum of individuals gleaned from the expanded media world, as well as historians, authors, and publicists.

There are new rules for the voting this year, allowing voters to select up to three of the five candidates nominated in each of four categories. A candidate must receive 75 percent of the total votes cast to gain admission, which makes sense. However, only one inductee per category will be allowed into the Hall. Given the stringent 75 percent rule, that makes no sense at all.

"I can see where if one guy got 78 percent and another guy got 77 percent, that second guy wouldn't be delighted," said Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stables and a member of the Hall of Fame executive committee. "The spirit of the committee was to go ahead and make these changes, see how it goes, and if we need to make further changes we will."

This year, a total of 163 Hall of Fame ballots have been issued by the Vermont-based auditing company hired for tabulation. That figure represents 17 more than votes received in 2004, further evidence that democracy is on the march.

One of the newly enfranchised is Tom Wolski, the former jockey who retired in 1996, at the age of 48, after a career that lasted nearly 30 years. Wolski earned his chance to make an impact on the Hall of Fame by covering horse racing for The Province, the daily newspaper of Vancouver, British Columbia.

"That was a rush, to open up that letter from the Hall of Fame," Wolski said. "I was pretty sure I wasn't nominated. But to be able to vote is a great honor. My first thought was, 'Are you sure it's me?'"

It was, no mistake. Wolski began writing for The Province, along with other trade publications, in the mid-1980's while he was still riding. For the past 15 years he has hosted a weekly television show on racing that airs on a local Vancouver outlet and has won two media Sovereign Awards. Neither role should come as a surprise, since any number of retired professional athletes seem to find second careers in some kind of legitimate media outlet.

Except, it seems, in horse racing. As a freshly minted Hall of Fame voter, Wolski finds himself in a tiny minority of two. According to the Hall of Fame office, the only other voter on the list of 163 who has actually played the game professionally is Sean Clancy, the former steeplechase rider whose writing has been recognized with the David F. Woods Award for coverage of the Preakness and an Eclipse Award honorable mention.

Wolski was asked if he will be bringing any particular perspective to his first Hall of Fame voting experience. Specifically, he was asked if any of the nominated riders shut him off enough to lose all chance for Wolski's support.

"Do you mean, did I have any uncomfortable experiences with any of the five riders that would linger in the back of my mind?" Wolski said, giving the question a diplomatic spin. "Who are they again?"

As it turns out, Wolski rode for a number of years alongside Eddie Maple early in their careers, to a lesser extent with Craig Perret, not that much with Randy Romero and not at all with Jose Santos. Milo Valenzuela, the fifth nominee, was in the twilight of his career when Wolski first rode in California in the early 1970's.

"It would be the same idea as when I vote for the Eclipse Awards, or a Sovereign Award," Wolski said. "I have to cast away friends and look at their records. I feel I can all put that aside.

"At the same time, having ridden for so many years, I think I can look at their qualifications in a little different way. It's not just a matter of who won what. You don't just pick names, because a lot is riding on a vote like this."

With people like Wolski entering the mix, voting for the Hall of Fame would seem to be in good hands. That leaves it up to the Hall of Fame executive committee to make sure the process is fair, and is able to stand scrutiny from all angles.