When the ballots are finally tabulated, the Hall of Fame nominating committee will be the biggest obstacle the youthful, silver-haired 56-year-old had to overcome. This is his first year on the ballot but not the first time he was eligible. It’s a little complicated.
Beyond that pesky association with Quarter Horses that doesn’t really sit well with the old guard, there were a bunch of incomplete thoroughbred seasons sandwiched around years in which he entered not a single thoroughbred race. But now it’s 2009 and, in Baffert speak, everything’s cherry.
Baffert, who led the nation in earnings three times and whose horses have bankrolled over $135-million, has trained more than 160 stakes winners and counting, including a remarkable 254 graded stakes. Figure that that’s an awful lot of five-furlong bullets.
It was Baffert’s work with Thirty Slews--a horse he purchased as a yearling that would eventually win the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint--that earned him a national reputation, the year after he won three stakes races on Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita’s California Cup program.
For Baffert the horseman, good things, and bad things, came in fours. There were four Quarter Horse champions and eight Triple Crown wins, but with four different horses, earning him four Double Crowns but no cigars. The most frustrating, of course, was Real Quiet’s agonizing nose loss to Victory Gallop in the 1998 Belmont.
Baffert’s certain first round election will come at the expense of another Bob from California, old schooler Robert Wheeler. Because of a controversial rule, only one finalist can be elected in any category in any given year, unless there’s a dead heat.
This is Wheeler’s eighth year on the ballot. Two of his best-known stakes winners were C.V. Whitney's homebred Silver Spoon, the co-champion 3-year-old filly of 1959, and the filly Bug Brush, winner of six stakes including a world record performance defeating males in the San Antonio Stakes.
Silver Spoon defeated males, too, winning the 1959 Santa Anita Derby, one of three fillies to do so. Both fillies later won consecutive runnings of the prestigious Santa Margarita. Wheeler won that race for a third time, 18 years later, with nine-time stakes winner Taisez Vous, the only trainer to win the Santa Margarita thrice at that time.
In 1960, Wheeler won a second consecutive Santa Anita Derby with the Whitney owned colt, Tompion, who later won the Blue Grass and Travers when Wheeler sent him East for another trainer to saddle.
Much of Wheeler's career pre-dated the grading of races, but he won 26 percent of the graded stakes he entered and 25 percent of all stakes from 1976 to 1992. He trained a total of 56 stakes-winning horses, including Track Robbery, the 1982 older female champion.
Wheeler was a consummate horseman. He won turf marathons, the 14-furlong San Juan Capistrano and 12-furlong Sunset with Patrone, and was an ace with two year olds, winning the pre-Breeders’ Cup Hollywood Juvenile Championship five times. Wheeler trainees also won two Hollywood Gold Cups and the La Canada back-to-back.
Where the surf meets the turf, Wheeler won the Del Mar Oaks twice and three runnings of the Del Mar Debutante. He won the Del Mar Futurity and Del Mar Derby, too, winning stakes at the seaside track for a period of 30 years.
Wheeler died in 1992 but is still ranked 10th in all-time stakes victories at Santa Anita. Seven of the nine trainers ranked ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame. He saddled his final stakes winner, Never Round, two weeks before his death at age 72.
Robert Wheeler’s career achievements are clearly worthy of enshrinement into the Hall but in good conscience it’s impossible to deny Bob Baffert the deserved honor of first- round inductee. And so Bobby Wheeler will be denied for the eighth time because of a questionable qualifier.
Eventually Wheeler will get in. His Hall of Fame credentials are undeniable and, if he’s not voted in, he’ll certainly get the nod from the Hall of Fame’s historic review committee. Bobby Wheeler died 17 years ago. He’ll be eligible for historic review in 2017.