A few years ago, I received one of the biggest honors in horse racing when given a ballot for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, especially in the wake of new induction protocols that could see waves of new honorees in the next few summers.
I’ve mailed my ballot back to Saratoga Springs, and it’ll be interesting to see vote totals when they get announced next month. I saw none of the 10 finalists as surefire inductees, and I wound up checking three names on my ballot. Below are my explanations, starting with the one I had the most conviction about.
1) BLIND LUCK
Far from a visually impressive equine specimen, Blind Luck began her career in a maiden claiming event at Calder. After her debut victory, she was privately purchased and moved to the care of Hall of Fame horseman Jerry Hollendorfer, for whom she would reel off 10 graded stakes victories, including six Grade 1 triumphs. She earned an Eclipse Award as 2010’s top 3-year-old filly, and she finished in the money in all but one of her 22 career starts.
Personal story: I was in attendance for the 2010 Alabama, and got to go into the paddock before the race thanks to a friend who had connections (one I now work with at DRF; hi, Craig!). I’ve been watching horse racing for most of my life, and I can safely say that I have NEVER seen a horse look worse before a race than Blind Luck did that day. She was washed out, showed positively no interest in being there, and looked nothing like a horse that had already taken down a pair of Grade 1 races that season.
Then, she went and did this.
2) HAVRE DE GRACE
Of course, we can’t talk about Blind Luck without mentioning her main rival, Havre de Grace, who’s also on the ballot. Unlike Blind Luck, who won Grade 1 races in three consecutive seasons, Havre de Grace is best known for one shining campaign that earned her Horse of the Year honors.
Yes, there are asterisks here. Her trophy came in 2011, a year where there was no standout older male. She did beat boys in that year’s Grade 1 Woodward, but with the exception of upper-tier stalwart Flat Out, there wasn’t much else in the race, and she was fourth behind Drosselmeyer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic two starts later. Furthermore, her peak was fairly short compared to other Hall of Famers, and in an age where top horses race fewer and fewer times, longevity may very well matter more come voting season.
I understand the logic there, but I don’t necessarily agree with some of it. Unpopular opinion coming: If the Hall of Fame isn’t meant for a horse that had one sterling season, who wants to be the one to tell those at Stonestreet that Rachel Alexandra’s being kicked out? I voted for her, but if we’re going off of the “she didn’t beat much and her peak wasn’t long” angle, certainly it applies to Rachel, right? She beat nothing in her Woodward triumph, and with all due respect to Summer Bird, the crop of 3-year-old males she dusted multiple times was one of the worst of the past 15 years.
Maybe Havre de Grace came along at a time of transition for the handicap division, but her stirring rivalry with Blind Luck certainly helps, and her win over future Hall of Famer Royal Delta in the 2011 Beldame puts her over the top.
3) HEAVENLY PRIZE
I went back and forth on Heavenly Prize multiple times over the course of my deliberations. Admittedly, I wasn’t overly familiar with the distaff division of the early-1990’s, and the lack of a Breeders’ Cup victory doesn’t help her cause.
However, the more I looked, the more I became won over by this mare. She never finished out of the money in 18 career starts, and of her nine wins, eight were of the Grade 1 variety. She ran against the likes of Inside Information, Paseana, and Serena’s Song, all legitimate Hall of Famers, and she didn’t discredit herself in her lone start against males, when she ran third to the great Cigar in the 1996 Donn Handicap.
A Breeders’ Cup victory would’ve made her a much easier choice. She was third in the 1993 Juvenile Fillies (just her third career start) and second in the Distaff in both 1994 and 1995. The first Distaff lost stings, as it came by a neck to 47-1 shot One Dreamer, but the second one is understandable, as Inside Information turned in one of the most freakish performances in North American racing history. With billing like that, I HAVE to show it, right?
I wasn’t sold on Heavenly Prize when ballots went out. However, eight Grade 1 wins, in an era where top-class mares seemed to grow on trees, is one heck of a total, even if none of those victories came in the Breeders’ Cup. Ultimately, I felt she’d done enough to merit inclusion, so she was the final checkmark before I sealed the envelope and sent it back east.
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As far as the others are concerned, there were no hard omissions for me. I’ve discussed Gio Ponti’s resume at length, and while he might get in given the new standards for induction (50.1%, no maximum number of honorees), I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him. None of the jockeys struck me as Hall of Fame-worthy, although Corey Nakatani could convince me with a few more strong years given his nine Breeders’ Cup victories, which matter more to me than Robby Albarado’s 5,000-plus wins.
As far as the trainers are concerned, Mark Casse will likely get in in a few years. I couldn’t vote for him this time around, though. It’s the NATIONAL Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and while his Canadian accomplishments are astounding, I just don’t think he’s done quite enough since coming to the U.S. One or two more big horses, though, will probably sway my vote.