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HORSE RACING / BILL CHRISTINE

It's Tougher to Get Their Day in Hall

June 04, 2005|BILL CHRISTINE

Pat Day rode the first of his nearly 8,800 winners in 1973. Fifteen years later -- the 15 years a jockey must ride before he is eligible -- Day was still not listed on the Racing Hall of Fame ballot, despite obvious qualifications.

By 1990, I suggested to a fellow member of the hall's nominating committee that Day ought to be considered. But the ballot came out, and Day still wasn't on it.

"How come?" I asked, not having to feign incredulity.

"Maybe [committee members] didn't like the way he rode Easy Goer in those races against Sunday Silence last year," said one of the nominators.

Oh. I sought a second opinion.

"It might be that God stuff," another committee member said. "Day thanks God every time he wins a race, and people get tired of it."

If incredulous can have a look, it was all over my face.

Finally, in 1991, three years after his time, Day made the ballot for the first time and was easily elected.

I assume he won in a landslide. It's hard to know for sure. For years, the Hall of Fame has announced winners, but not their winning margins. The committee chairman, arguing for this secrecy, used to say detailed results might embarrass non-winners; now the rationale is that high non-winning vote totals could prejudice the election if the same candidates reappeared on the ballot the next year.

I can understand why the vote is sub rosa. In 1983, Coaltown, born the same year as his inimitable stablemate, Citation, was sent into the Hall of Fame with 29% of the vote. In 1985, Davona Dale went in with 28%. In 1986, Burley Parke won from the trainer's division with 34%. There probably are other similar cases.

I asked the late Kent Hollingsworth, who was running the election in the early 1980s, if this didn't cheapen the shrine, admitting horses and horsemen with so few votes.

"On the contrary," said Hollingsworth, a journalist who also had a law degree. "These low totals show how competitive the elections were."

The Hall of Fame went the full 180 last week when it admitted trainer Nick Zito, but no one else, human or equine, except a few steeplechasers. No thoroughbred, for the first time. No jockey, for the first time in 19 years. In August, when the induction ceremonies are held in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Zito may be encouraged to filibuster. Somebody has to fill up the time onstage.

The Hall of Fame has gone from making it too easy to get elected to too tough. Now a candidate must be named on at least 75% of the ballots, and even if there might be two contenders in the same category with 75%, only one will be inducted.

"I'm sure some of the fans will be disappointed," said Ed Bowen, chairman of the nominating committee. "But baseball fans were disappointed too, the year [1996] no player was elected [by the baseball writers] to their Hall of Fame."

In changing the rules, racing has tried to ape the Baseball Hall of Fame's system, but the difference is that the Racing Hall of Fame uses an electorate of about 160, roughly one-third of baseball's voting pool. Baseball voters can list a maximum of 10 players; in racing, the most is five. I'm no math whiz but a good guess is that getting 75% of the vote is much more likely in baseball than racing.

The Racing Hall of Fame has been left in a no-win situation. If it gives the current rules another chance, next year there might be no inductees. To get his 75%, Zito, a most deserving horseman, may have needed the extra impetus that a barn full of top 3-year-olds gave him early in the year. The balloting, by the way, was done before eight of Zito's starters failed to threaten in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness.

Then if the Hall of Fame lowers the bar, and a Silver Charm gets elected on the second try, induction will come with the stigma that the rules had to be softened for him to make it.

Making book on what the Hall of Fame will do has always been a dicey exercise. When trainer Bobby Frankel was elected in 1995, there were so many distortions on his plaque that Frankel prodded Saratoga officials into a do-over.

In 1986, the last year a jockey wasn't elected, Hollingsworth, who ran a taut ship, sent out an astonishing ballot -- no jockeys. He had pulled the same thing the year before. Support had been building for Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez and Jacinto Vasquez to be enshrined, and Hollingsworth, detesting their connections to the race-fixing scandals in New York in the 1970s, couldn't stomach any of them getting in.

But they all outlasted him. Cordero was elected in 1988, Velasquez in 1990. Vasquez, who allegedly offered another jockey a bribe, was suspended in 1984 and 1985 and had a longer wait, but in 1998 the voters finally forgave him. Pete Rose should take heart.

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