Tuesday, February 08, 2011
The Battle for the Ballot
LOS ANGELES, February 8, 2011--Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the Racing Hall of Fame, which is entertaining suggestions from its electorate to determine what horses and horsemen belong on this year's ballot. It never was an exact science, and definitely not a soft go, and the panjandrums of the process made it harder a year ago when they rejiggered the rules for the umpteenth time.
It used to be that the voting mass threw the names of a worthy horse or two, a jockey and a trainer against the wall and hoped that the nominating committee would make them stick. But now the first round in this thinkfest is a Heinz varieties: You're allowed to proffer a mix and match that can't exceed four--four horses maybe and no horsemen, or two horses, one trainer and one jockey for example, and so on and so on. I hope you get the picture, because I barely do. Ever try weighing the Hall of Fame credentials of John Velazquez vis a vis Ghostzapper? Forget apples and oranges, this is rutabagas and eggplant.
Randy Romero was the only jockey elected (Don Pierce was also enshrined, courtesy of the Historic Review Committee). Romero, bless him, was no cheese champion, but Velazquez, with his marvelous record, seemed to be the veritable lead pipe. Going into this year, his mounts have earned $241 million, which ranked him behind only Pat Day, Jerry Bailey and Chris McCarron, all retired and all in the Hall of Fame. Velazquez has also won more than 4,500 races, winning with 18% of his mounts while riding on the East Coast, in colonies where the top competition can be found. He should be rubber-stamped by both the nominating committee and the voters.
Ghostzapper is something else again. He lost only twice, when he was masquerading as a sprinter, but his career encompassed only 11 races in four years, and he ran around two turns only twice. But he won the Vosburgh and the Woodward and the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Metropolitan Mile, quite a four-bagger for any horse. I don't know, did he do enough? The bar is being lowered, year by year, because horses aren't asked to do what their predecessors routinely did. More and more, the voters will be asked to judge horses with records like Ghostzapper, and another lightly raced colt before us, for the second straight year, is Smarty Jones. Smarty Jones was beaten only once, out of nine races, but he never raced beyond his loss to Birdstone in the Belmont, wasn't around to challenge Ghostzapper in the Breeders' Cup and never won a Horse of the Year title. I don't think Smarty Jones belongs on the ballot; more of a case could be made for Saint Liam, who was five when he was voted Horse of the Year. This is his first year of eligibility.
Until the Historic Review Committee tapped Buster Millerick, last year would have hit the books without a trainer being inducted. The two trainers on the ballot, Gary Jones and Bob Wheeler, might get another chance this year, but with Steve Asmussen eligible for the first time, the slots will be hard to come by. Asmussen, fifth on the money list with $171 million through 2010, might be thought of as a sure thing, but the many drug positives for his horses over the years might stop some voters in their tracks. Baseball has a morals clause in its Hall of Fame voting rules, but horse racing does not. My guess is that Asmussen will be swept into the hall on the first try, and since the panjandrums don't release vote counts, we'll never know how convincing his candidacy was.
A trainer overdue for induction is Jerry Hollendorfer, who didn't even make the ballot last year. Hollendorfer wins races by the carload, and piles up millions of dollars in purse money as well. Pre-2011, he was fourth in lifetime wins (5,863) and eighth in purses ($119 million).
"Jerry Hollendorfer is the biggest omission. . . " Steve Davidowitz, the veteran turf writer, author and handicapper, told me last year. "It was completely inexplicable that he was (not on the 2010 ballot), given his extraordinary history of success in Northern California and his victories in major stakes with limited opportunities. If Hollendorfer has not earned a place in the Hall of Fame, there is no Hall of Fame worth talking about."
Limited to four, I'm likely to send along to the Hall of Fame the names of Asmussen, Hollendorfer, Velazquez and Ghostzapper. One of the inequities of the process is that those three magnificent fillies--Sky Beauty, Safely Kept and Open Mind--have been effectively working against each other's chances every time they all appear on the ballot, as was the case a year ago. Because they were unsuccessful finalists, we're told that the nominating committee will automatically consider them again without any prodding from the likes of me. In a perfect world, it would be nice if the three of them all went into the shrine together. I'm not making book that that will happen.