03/13/2014 11:53AM

Steven Crist: Three slam dunks on this year's Hall of Fame ballot


Ballots for this year’s nominees to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame will be sent to the electorate this week, with four new inductees to be announced April 25.

While voters may vote yes or no on each of the 10 nominees, with the four top vote-getters winning election, this year’s lineup strikes me as lopsided. While all 10 finalists, winnowed by committee from more than 50 initial nominees, have their merits and none would darken the Hall by their inclusion, three of them have such overwhelming credentials that the only tight race should be for the fourth spot.

There can’t possibly be any debate about Curlin, but it’s still a pleasure to recall his achievements. Unraced at 2, the Smart Strike colt was champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year in the outstanding 3-year-old class of 2007 and champion older male and Horse of the Year again at 4 in 2008. He won a record $10.5 million and 11 of 16 career starts, including the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders’ Cup Classic at 3 and the Dubai World Cup, Woodward, and a second Gold Cup at 4.

Retired to stud at the end of 2008, Curlin is eligible to the Hall for the first time after the five-year waiting period.

Also appearing on the ballot for the first time is his trainer, Steve Asmussen, who won’t be as overwhelming a selection but deserves to be on the numbers. His 6,703 victories through 2013 are the second most in American racing history, and his horses’ $214 million in purse earnings rank fifth. In addition to Curlin, he trained Rachel Alexandra, a surefire Hall inductee when she becomes eligible (along with Zenyatta) in 2016.

How can you not vote for the trainer with the second-most victories in the annals of the game and three straight Horse of the Year titleists? Some will not because they are still troubled by a six-month suspension for medication positives in 2006, but his achievements outweigh those incidents, and similar penalties have not kept other trainers from enshrinement.

I was surprised that Ashado was not elected last year in her first appearance on the ballot, but she shouldn’t be denied any longer. She is about the closest thing we have had to a champion at 2, 3, and 4 since Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid in the 1970s. She was the first filly to win divisional honors at 3 and 4 since Life’s Magic in 1984 and 1985, a feat since matched only by Royal Delta in 2011 and 2012.

As a 2-year-old, Ashado won the Schuylerville and Spinaway and was the nation’s second-best juvenile filly behind Halfbridled. She then returned to win Eclipse Awards as the best 3-year-old filly of 2004, when she won the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, and Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and as the champion older filly of 2005, when she took the Ogden Phipps, Go for Wand, and Beldame. In all, the daughter of Saint Ballado won 12 of 21 starts, including seven Grade 1 races, and $3.9 million.

It’s tempting to end my ballot there with Ashado, Asmussen, and Curlin, since only four nominees can be elected, and a vote for someone else theoretically could hurt their chances, but I’d like to think that those three are so clearly deserving that I can add a fourth without causing trouble.

With no disrespect to the four jockeys (Chris Antley, Garrett Gomez, Craig Perret, and Alex Solis) and the other trainer (Gary Jones) on the ballot, to me, it would come down to the remaining two horses, Kona Gold and Xtra Heat.

Sprinters have historically been slighted in Hall elections, but these two were remarkably talented and durable. Kona Gold was a top-level performer for four years and won 14 races, including the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, the year he won the Eclipse as champion sprinter.

Xtra Heat, however, has even shinier credentials: an astounding 26 victories in 35 career starts, including six performances in which she earned Beyer Speed Figures of 111 or higher (including a 117 and a 120). She was so dominant in 2001, winning nine stakes races, that she was named that season’s champion 3-year-old filly, the only time that Eclipse Award has been given to a filly who did not race beyond seven furlongs.

Okay, I’ve talked myself into it: Ashado, Asmussen, Curlin and Xtra Heat.