11/16/2001 12:00AM

Time for Hall to quit clowning around


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Let's face it. You're nobody if you're not in a hall of fame. And really, how tough can it be to get into one?

A website search unearthed hundreds of halls, and not just of the sports variety. There is a Juggling Hall of Fame, a Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, an American Police Hall of Fame and Museum.

Astronauts have a hall of fame. Ecologists have a hall of fame. Poets have a hall of fame. And for a nominal fee of $14.98, you can apply to have your favorite dad inducted into the Fathers Hall of Fame.

Everyone kneels at the altar of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but there is also a Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, an Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and a Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame, which in 2001 finally inducted Genoa Keawe along with the Haili Church Choir. In case you're curious, Don Ho is not a member.

The website for the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame somberly states that it is "dedicated to recognizing the men and women who have made snowmobiling what it is today." What that is exactly was not mentioned.

In 1979, Hazel Carter founded the Quilters Hall of Fame in Marion, Ind., honoring those who have made outstanding contributions to the world of quilting. I am delighted to report that Bertha Stenge, the "Chicago Quilting Queen," was among those inducted in 1980.

And yes, Virginia, there is a Clown Hall of Fame, created in 1989 and located in Delavan, Wis. Red Skelton, great. Emmett Kelly, of course. Bob Keeshan - ah, Clarabell. They are all enshrined. But how can we take such a place seriously if it took them until 1996 to elect Bozo. Bozo!

Which brings us to the process of electing members to the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.

The process has begun, with the solicitation of possible nominees from a group of more than 125 racing writers and broadcasters, as well as racing historians. In the spirit of full disclosure, this reporter is a member of that group. Now you know who to blame, and where to find me.

It also should be pointed out that the people who run the election for the Racing Hall of Fame insist that all information pertaining to the selection process remains confidential. I promise not to tell if you don't. Besides, their sober admonition actually applies more specifically to such things as the secret Hall of Fame handshake, the masked nomination ritual, and the location of the "real" party after the public ceremony.

Anyway, the election process is way too complicated to drag into the light of day. ABM treaties are hammered out with less fuss. More often than not, there is very little argument when the new members are announced. Still, how can one make sense of a system that jammed a one-season wonder like A.P. Indy into the Hall of Fame after a couple years of eligibility when a horse like Fort Marcy - take a look at that record - required more than 25 years of careful deliberation before his election.

And don't get me started on the trainers who have been left out of the Hall of Fame, either through the vagaries of the election process or the baffling blindspots among electors.

Men like Tommy Kelly, Phil Johnson, and Richard Mandella are certainly deserving professionals who lend class to any gathering. But how does horse racing explain a Hall of Fame without Carl Hanford, trainer of a five-time Horse of the Year (Kelso), or Buster Millerick, one of the most influential trainers in the history of West Coast racing?

It is important to catch up with the past. We can only keep trying. And so, when asked for names to be considered by the nominating committee of the Hall of Fame (yeah, I'm on that one, too), in each of the five Hall of Fame categories, I hoped these would be the names that would make it to the final round:

Contemporary Male - Ancient Title. Winner of major stakes at ages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, at distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

Contemporary Female - Flawlessly. Two-time female grass champ. Three-time winner of the Ramona Handicap. Three-time winner of the Matriarch.

Horse of Yesteryear (more than 25 years ago) - Cougar II. Champion grass horse of 1972. Santa Anita Handicap winner on dirt. Eighth-leading earner upon his retirement. The other seven are in the Hall.

Jockey - Jack Westrope. Killed in action at Hollywood Park in 1958. Eighth all-time leading rider in wins at the time of his death. The other seven are in the Hall.

Trainer - Mel Stute. Trained Snow Chief (champion), Brave Raj (champion), Very Subtle (Breeders' Cup winner), Double Discount (world record holder), First Balcony, Telly's Pop, Commissary.

So keep the faith. And remember - it took Bozo seven years.