05/30/2006 12:00AM

A system where everyone fails


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The most stunning news to come out of the 2006 Hall of Fame shutout was not that no one among Silver Charm, Alex Solis, Inside Information, John Veitch, Best Pal, Sky Beauty, Silverbulletday, Craig Perret, Robert Wheeler, Eddie Maple, Mel Stute, and Manila was deemed worthy of induction by at least 132 of the 175 voters who returned ballots.

Such a result was almost a statistical certainty.

The real head-spinner was the bombshell that the Hall of Fame management plans to do something about it. Nominating committee chairman Ed Bowen, obviously embarrassed by two straight years of a new voting system without a single horse inducted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame, vowed to poll voters for their input and present alternatives to his executive committee.

"As one man talking about his own opinion, I do hope we make some changes for next year," Bowen said during a teleconference Tuesday afternoon.

In the view of some veteran observers, Bowen's attitude flies in the face of experience.

"The Hall of Fame people know that they have a problem," said Victor Zast, a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in The Blood-Horse, among other publications. "But like so many things in racing, the wheels move slowly. The changes that will take place will be subtle, and not enough, until maybe three to five years have passed."

Zast spends part of his summers at Saratoga, where the Hall of Fame induction ceremony is, in theory, among the high points. In 2005, with trainer Nick Zito the only flat racing inductee, it was decidedly different from ceremonies past.

"It wasn't fun being at that event last year," Zast said. "It didn't have the charisma and excitement of an event that should be a showcase for the industry. What's needed is qualified people of more recent memory, and from the nominations this year there certainly were. It's hard to believe that no horse and so few people have been worthy of getting in the Hall of Fame over the last two years."

Bill Christine, the recently retired racing writer and two-time Eclipse Award winner for the Los Angeles Times, is downright pessimistic that the Hall of Fame will get it right.

"Every time they make a change it seems like it's wrong-headed," Christine noted. "They just paint themselves into a deeper corner. I don't think the system now is ever going to work."

Christine, who also has voting privileges for the baseball Hall of Fame process, cringes whenever comparisons are made between voting systems.

"They're trying to compare apples and oranges," Christine said. "There are about 600 guys who vote for the baseball Hall of Fame. Theoretically, they can vote for 10 candidates. That gives you a possible 6,000 permutations. In racing, we've got, what, 186 voters, with three votes in each category, which means you wind up with something like 540 possibilities. Obviously, compared to 6,000, the group with only about 540 shots is going to be up against it."

Clearly, the Hall of Fame has hard work ahead if it is going to recover from the public relations nightmare of the last two years. Previous voting rules, which allowed a candidate to enter the Hall with less than 40 percent support, certainly needed reform. But to nearly double that number as the new bar for induction was an irresponsible overreaction that has now reaped a grim harvest.

Of all the mixed messages conveyed by the Hall of Fame voting system and its 2006 results, however, one haunting fact nags this particular reporter most of all.

It appears as if Alex Solis received a "yes" vote on only 83 of the 175 ballots returned, giving him just 47 percent support.

At least, in the other three categories, there were candidates that gained votes on more than 50 percent of the ballots (including the leading male horse, presumably Silver Charm, whose 67 percent support was tantamount to a statistical landslide). More than half should be enough to get elected to anything in these contentious times. But Solis fell short.

There are any number of possible reasons for Solis's dramatic lack of support. You could blame the confusing, ever-changing voting system. Or point a finger at the Solis resume, which includes only one victory in a Triple Crown race and three in the Breeders' Cup. There could even be a regional bias - perish the thought - since Solis has been based in Southern California for most of his career.

In the past, I have voted for such political candidates as Morris Udall, John Andersen, and Gore Vidal, knowing full well that it was nothing more than spitting into a strong wind.

But Solis? In Solis I thought I had finally backed a winner. And I did, in every other sense of the word. It's no big deal, though. Solis is only 42. He will put his head down and work just as hard as he has for the past 25 years. I'm proud to be among those 83 who were sufficiently impressed with his more than 4,400 winners and purses of $197 million compiled at the top of the game. That is rare territory, occupied by very few, and they usually can be found in the Hall of Fame.