A hall of fame is the ultimate gesture of self-congratulation for any profession. All institutions are infatuated with their own histories, and a hall of fame institutionalizes history with effective simplicity.
There is a hall of fame for sailing, quilting, cocktails, and curling. Teachers have a hall of fame. Lawyers have a hall of fame. So do strippers, clowns, fishermen, and robots.
With the announcement this week of 11 nominees, it is time once again for the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame to elect new members. Unlike last year, when the induction of Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Ramon Dominguez, and Steve Asmussen seemed a foregone conclusion, this year's list offers grist for considerable debate.
The horses nominated are Goldikova, Gio Ponti, and Kona Gold. The trainers are David Whiteley, John Shirreffs, and Mark Casse. The jockey nominees are Robby Albarado, Craig Perret, Javier Castellano, Garrett Gomez, and Victor Espinoza. Let the public comment begin:
"Kona Gold, and Garrett Gomez and Whiteley deserve to be enshrined in that H.O.F. Everyone else, it's not their time "
"Why isn't Jorge Chavez on the list of riders?"
"Bill Turner should be in the Hall of Fame -- are there any Triple Crown-winning trainers who aren't in the H.O.F?" (Answer: Yes. George Conway and Don Cameron.)
"What about Art Sherman?"
Yeah, what about Art Sherman? Then again, it can be argued that training California Chrome to career earnings of more than $14 million is its own reward, and enshrinement in Saratoga Springs would be anticlimactic. Besides, Sherman is already in the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, so he's always got that going for him.
The 186 Hall of Fame voters can vote for as many of the candidates as they deem worthy. At least, those are the instructions. But because only the four candidates with the most votes will be inducted -- as long as they get 50 percent plus one of the votes -- there will be voters who game the system in hopes of tilting the total in the direction of certain nominees.
The people running the Hall of Fame have never come up with a good reason why all candidates with better than 50 percent support should not be inducted. They're certainly not short of cash for a couple more plaques. Apparently, they do not trust the voters to exercise the kind of self-control that would view some candidates with a "yes but not yet" attitude.
Casse certainly fits such a category. After compiling a stellar record north of the border, he finally was elected to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2016, and his recent run in major U.S. stakes and Breeders' Cup events certainly puts him on a Hall of Fame track. But not yet.
There will be voters who take the same attitude toward Shirreffs, noting that winning a Kentucky Derby with Giacomo and training three-time champion and 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta to a record of 19 wins in 20 starts and an unprecedented victory over males in the Breeders' Cup Classic is not in itself enough to make the Hall of Fame, just as training five-time Horse of the Year Kelso was not enough to get Carl Hanford into the Hall until the Historical Committee righted that monumental wrong decades after the fact. So, go win another Derby, John, and let's see what happens.
With candidates like Shirreffs and Whiteley, the Nominating Committee (of which this writer is a poorly behaved member) is challenging voters to think of training horses in models other than the statistical excesses of Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, and Chad Brown, just as the three horses nominated all veer away from conventional Hall of Fame achievements in traditional main-track events.
Goldikova would follow All Along and Miesque as European stars who made enough of a North American impact to deserve a spot in the Hall. Gio Pointi, a three-time champion, would have added two Breeders' Cup races to his résumé were it not for Zenyatta and Goldikova. And in Kona Gold, they broke the mold in terms of honest, durable sprinters who bring nothing but honor to the game.
As for the nominated jockeys, they all belong in the Hall. Still, a racing fan from another planet could descend upon the scene, speed read the American Racing Manuals between 1976 and the late 1990s, and become seriously confused by the absence of Perret, 66, from the Hall of Fame.
Perrett was a big-money rider with an Eclipse Award and more than 4,400 winners, including victories in the Derby, the Belmont, and four Breeders' Cup events. He rode boot-to-boot for 37 years against more Hall of Famers that he could count on his fingers and toes, and he has been on the Hall of Fame ballot the last five years.
He also has a laid-back Louisiana sense of wry humor, which he let slip in an interview two years ago.
"Maybe I shouldn't get it," he said. "I didn't have to go and throw a brick through a window to get my name in the papers. And if I don't get it, that way, they can keep nominating me and keep thinking about me."
Fine, but now it's time to stop thinking about Perret and put him where he belongs.