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Too Easy to Enter This Hall of Fame : Horse racing: Jockeys, trainers, owners and even horses who are less than qualified make it to Saratoga Springs shrine.

August 15, 1995|ANDREW BEYER | THE WASHINGTON POST

The Racing Hall of Fame inducted five members last week--three horses, plus jockey Jerry Bailey and trainer Bobby Frankel. Unlike the greats in other sports who are honored at the end of their careers, people in the thoroughbred game often are enshrined while they are relatively young and in mid-career. After the ceremonies at the National Museum of Racing were concluded Monday, the 37-year-old Bailey went across the street, donned his silks and rode at Saratoga Race Track.

The turf writers who vote on Hall of Fame membership are regularly asked to do so long before all the evidence is in on the achievements of jockeys and trainers. And that's only one of the reasons the Racing Hall of Fame is amply populated by people who don't deserve the sport's highest honor.

Thoroughbred racing doesn't wait until people have retired to consider them for the Hall of Fame because most trainers stay on the job until they have drawn their last breath. It hardly makes sense to wait for Charlie Whittingham to meet his Maker before he qualifies for a plaque in Saratoga Springs. So rules were set that make trainers eligible for induction after they have been licensed for 25 years. Jockeys are eligible after 15 years in the saddle.

But conferring honors on athletes in mid-career can be a rush to judgment, and Bailey may be a case in point. I say this as an ardent admirer of the jockey, who is the best and most cerebral of his profession in the East, and a high-class person as well. Bailey started riding in 1974, and for most of his professional life he was considered a capable but unspectacular jockey--hardly Hall of Fame material. He proved to be a late bloomer. He scored the major triumphs of his career--three in the Breeders' Cup Classic and three in Triple Crown events--between 1991 and 1994.

He has been in the top echelon of his sport for only four years, but he was nominated and elected to the Hall of Fame at a time when those brilliant four years are in the forefront of every voter's mind. Any jockey who is going to take his place alongside Angel Cordero Jr., Eddie Arcaro and other all-time greats ought to be subjected to the test of time longer than Bailey has.

If you name an extremely wealthy owner who raced his horses in New York--a Whitney, a Phipps, a Mellon--chances are that his trainers are in the Hall of Fame. Trainers with such powerful stables behind them can hardly fail to have their share of stakes winners, and even underachievers. There are many New York trainers whose presence in the Hall of Fame is almost unfathomable.

Trainers without the proper Establishment connections are regularly overlooked. King Leatherbury is the second-winningest trainer in the history of thoroughbred racing, but as a Marylander who deals mostly with claiming horses, he's evidently not deemed Hall of Fame material.

The choice of horses who go into the Hall of Fame often is flawed too. The animals must be retired for five years before they are eligible. Often, so much time passes that most voters can't remember whether they were stars.

No selection process is ever going to be foolproof, but the Hall of Fame's procedures might be improved if horses became eligible within a year of retirement; if trainers had to be in the business longer than 25 years; and if jockeys didn't become eligible until they retired. Most riders hang up their silks by the age of 50 (or at least they should); it wouldn't hurt them to wait that long to be cited for the achievements of a lifetime.

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