My 2019 Hall of Fame Ballot; PLUS: Oaklawn Park Analysis, Selections, and Tickets (3/16/19)

In something that undoubtedly does not sit well with some members of racing’s establishment, I have a ballot for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. It’s one of the great honors of my career, and it’s always a joy to analyze the finalists, fill out my ballot, and mail it back east.

Last year was the first voting cycle with a new election threshold of 50 percent, plus one vote. The 2018 class was also one of the smallest in recent memory, as voters elected just one thoroughbred (Heavenly Prize). Whether this was a one-off occurrence or an indication of a shift in voter behavior is something we’ll likely find out when the 2019 class is announced in late-April.

One year ago, I had three horses on my ballot (for an explanation on last year’s ballot, click here). Heavenly Prize was one. The other two were Blind Luck and Havre de Grace, who both show up again. Once again, they make my ballot. The former won 10 graded stakes races (six of the Grade 1 variety), while the latter won Horse of the Year honors in 2011, a season where she beat the boys in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga.

Two horses showed up on the ballot for the first time. Like many others, I’m sure, I voted for Royal Delta, a two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. By any measure, she’s one of the best female racehorses of the 21st century, and while her credentials may mean she doesn’t crack the top pantheon of Hall of Fame horses, she did more than enough to earn a plaque in Saratoga Springs. It’s a safe bet that she’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

That’s the extent of my ballot, and I’ll go down the list of horses, trainers, and jockeys. If you’re a longtime reader of the site, you probably know I’m no huge fan of Gio Ponti. At some point, to be a Hall of Fame horse, you have to beat really good horses, and in my estimation, he never did that. Meanwhile, Rags to Riches showed up on this year’s ballot, and she may be a sentimental choice for some voters. However, one tremendous moment does not a Hall of Fame career make. Yes, her win in the Belmont against males was memorable, but she raced just once after that and never beat older rivals. That’s not enough for me.

As far as the humans are concerned, I have tremendous respect for the careers of Mark Casse, Christophe Clement, Craig Perret, and David Whiteley. If any of them are enshrined this summer, I won’t be raising a stink about it. Having said that, none of them particularly hit me as people who need to be in.

Of the group, Casse and Clement are closest to earning my vote, and with both horsemen still active with large barns, my opinions may be swayed in the coming years. I don’t think Casse’s done quite enough in the U.S. as opposed to Canada (remember, it’s the NATIONAL Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame), and Clement’s lack of a Breeders’ Cup win is a big strike against him. Those aren’t easy races to win, as Clement trainee Gio Ponti’s seconds to Zenyatta and Goldikova prove, but when we get to this point, the goose egg matters.

One or two more big horses likely puts Casse in. A win on racing’s biggest stage probably puts Clement in. However, at this time, I couldn’t bring myself to check the box next to either name. I respect that others may feel differently, and if I’m outnumbered, I’ll tip my cap and eagerly tune in to the induction ceremony to hear their speeches.

– – – – –

Saturday’s card at Oaklawn Park is a really good one. An 11-race program is on tap, and it features two divisions of the Grade 2 Rebel. The card has drawn not just Bob Baffert trainees Game Winner and Improbable, but several of the best older fillies and mares in the country as well.

There are two Pick Four sequences on tap, and I think both are pretty attractive. Let’s get to it!

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #1

R1: 1,2
R2: 1,4,6,9,10
R3: 3,6,9,10
R4: 5

40 Bets, $20

Like many others, I’m sure, I’ve singled a heavy favorite in the payoff leg. However, the first three races all hit me as wide-open affairs, and given field sizes, we may be able to extract value from the sequence.

We kick things off with a maiden special weight event, and I’ve used the two inside runners. #1 BREAKING NEWS ran very well in his debut before regressing a bit last time out, but the recent work indicates he’s coming back to form. Additionally, #2 MY LEGACY showed a lot of speed in his unveiling at Fair Grounds before fading to fourth, and should improve for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

The second race is one of a few races every season at Oaklawn that baffle me. It’s a 12-furlong starter allowance event, and, for obvious reasons, I felt the need to spread. If you’re looking for a bit of a price, #4 BIGSHOT LACEWELL showed speed in a similar event earlier in the meet, and this race seems very light on early zip. If he gets comfortable, he could make the 8-1 morning line price look like a real overlay.

Maidens will go two turns in the third race, and I also felt the need to spread a bit here. #3 PLUG AND PLAY almost certainly needed his debut, and he’s not bred to be a sprinter. He adds blinkers and stretches out to a two-turn route of ground he should love, and for that reason, he’s my top pick. However, if you’re going price-shopping, #6 KINETIC SWAGGER showed zip off the bench last time out in a race that doubled as his first outing since October. A logical step forward in his second start back puts him right there, and given the 15-1 morning line price, I need to have him on the ticket.

It could be a big day for trainer Bob Baffert, and it starts in the fourth race with #5 DESSMAN. He was last seen suffering a brutal beat in the Grade 2 San Vicente, when he was beaten a nose while earning a 94 Beyer Speed Figure. He does try two turns for the first time, but given that he’s a son of Belmont winner Union Rags, I don’t think that will be an issue. Anything close to either of his previous efforts likely puts him far clear of the rest of the field, and because of that, he’ll likely be a very short price (the 8/5 morning line actually seems a tad generous).

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

I’m going to do something a bit different. I think DRF Ticket Maker’s functions fit this all-stakes Pick Four sequence like a glove, so I used it to put together $14.50 worth of tickets.

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 11.56.06 PM

The sequence kicks off with the Grade 2 Azeri for older fillies and mares. The field is short on quantity, but long on quality, as it drew both #2 MIDNIGHT BISOU and #5 ELATE (among others). Unsurprisingly, I’m using them both, but I’m also going to lightly use a big price. For all of the talent in this race, there isn’t much early speed. Midnight Bisou is tactical, which will help, but I needed some coverage in case #1 TAPA TAPA TAPA is left alone on the lead. She’s certainly not as talented as the four Grade 1 winners in here, but if you subscribe to the notion that pace makes the race, she can’t be completely ignored.

The eighth race is the first division of the Rebel, and while I wish I could get cute, I don’t think #9 IMPROBABLE loses. To me, this is the weaker division of the race, and anything close to his last two races puts him in the winner’s circle. I am not a believer in #8 GALILEAN, who has beaten nothing in Cal-bred races and tries open company for the first time. If you’re looking for a price underneath, #2 LONG RANGE TODDY had a deceptively awful trip in the Grade 3 Southwest, where he was shuffled back along the rail multiple times yet still salvaged third money. I don’t think the rider change is a coincidence, and while I doubt he’s talented enough to challenge Improbable, I think he’s talented enough to merit inclusion on the bottom of exacta tickets.

The ninth race is the Essex Handicap. I’m using likely favorite #8 GIANT EXPECTATIONS, but I don’t think he’s anything close to a cinch. He’s not a great gate horse, which is problematic given that he likes to be on or near the lead, and even if he gets out well, he almost certainly won’t be alone going into the first turn. My top pick is #7 SNAPPER SINCLAIR, a hard-knocking sort with tactical speed that may be getting better as a 4-year-old. Additionally, I don’t think there’s ANY chance #9 RATED R SUPERSTAR is close to his 12-1 morning line price, given his solid third in the Grade 3 Razorback last month. He should get a favorable race flow, and I think he’ll be flying late. Finally, I’ll lightly use fellow closer #2 HENCE, who may need to step forward but has been working well and would also benefit from fast fractions.

The payoff leg is the second division of the Rebel, and it features Breeders’ Cup Juvenile hero #5 GAME WINNER, who makes his seasonal debut. I think he’ll be very tough, but I could at least see a scenario where a rival nips him. I really liked #7 OUR BRAINTRUST in the Grade 3 Withers, and he looked like a winner turning for home. However, he was soundly bumped multiple times by that day’s runner-up (I thought it was enough to merit a DQ, actually), and he hung as a result. He gets blinkers here for his second start around two turns, and I love that he’s taken steps forward with every race he’s run. Would another step forward be enough to beat Game Winner if that one is fully-cranked? Probably not. However, it’s not like that one has been working lights-out of late. If Game Winner needs a race, I’ll at least have a little bit of coverage with another runner in the field.

THE DARK DAY FILES: How Can We Appropriately Honor Fourstardave?

Saturday’s feature at Saratoga was the Grade 1 Fourstardave. Named for one of the most beloved horses in recent Saratoga history, the race was won by another local favorite, Voodoo Song. Voodoo Song was previously best known for winning four times at the 2017 Saratoga meet, and this quickly inspired some in racing to compare the two horses.

I like Voodoo Song. He’s a cool horse and a great story, having risen from the claiming ranks to become one of the better turf horses in the eastern part of the United States. In a sport that desperately needs cool stories, his is a cool story. However, comparing him to Fourstardave does the latter a great disservice.

Records in sports are made to be broken. They’re how we measure greats of varying eras, and there are some that, try as competitors might, will likely never be approached. For example, we’ll never see a pitcher throw three no-hitters in a row and break Johnny Vander Meer’s mark of two, and we’ll never see an NBA player go for 100 points in a game, like Wilt Chamberlain once did.

All of this leads up to this one indisputable fact: Fourstardave holds the most unbreakable record in horse racing. No horse will ever win a race at eight consecutive Saratoga meets, and horses outlined on the hood of Ferraris will drive them before one of their fellow equines wins one at nine in a row. Shoot, the only horses with careers that long nowadays are converted steeplechasers, and those races are probably even harder to win than ones on the flat!

From 1987 through 1994, Fourstardave made at least one appearance every summer in the Saratoga winner’s circle. He was never a top-tier thoroughbred. He was never beating the likes of contemporaries such as two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Lure, and an argument can be made that he wasn’t even the most accomplished offspring of sire Compliance and dam Broadway Joan (full brother Fourstars Allstar won the Group 1 Irish 2,000 Guineas). That lack of high-profile form is probably why, the further you get from upstate New York, the less people you find that fondly remember Fourstardave.

What he did have, though, was longevity unmatched by any horse that ever summered at the Spa. As a comparison point, let’s look at Wise Dan, the latest model of the “hard-knocking, hard-trying, ornery gelding” that the racing gods molded out of clay and gave to us for our betting and viewing pleasure. During his Hall of Fame career (and yes, Wise Dan bashers, he’s a Hall of Famer), he won a race at Saratoga in three straight seasons. He was in training for a 2015 return before he was officially retired.

Had Wise Dan won that season’s Fourstardave, it would have given him four straight years with a win at Saratoga. This is nothing to sneeze at, and would look great on a plaque across town at the Hall of Fame. However, and let this resonate…such a total would have only put him halfway to Fourstardave’s lofty total.

Unless scientists find ways to turn horses into indestructible robots, no top-tier horse will run long enough to even get halfway to Fourstardave’s record. It’s simply a different sport now, and horses that appear at four or five Saratoga meets are getting harder and harder to come by.

As the years roll on, Fourstardave’s accomplishments should be growing in magnitude because of that fact. However, it seems as though the opposite is happening, at least in some circles. While he was given an edible key to the city of Saratoga Springs upon his retirement, and even paraded inside local hot spot Siro’s, Saratoga’s Hoofprints Walk of Fame (in principle, a very good idea) does not have a spot for him as of yet.

Former Saratogian colleague Mike Veitch (one of the smartest, kindest men I’ve ever known) is on the selection committee. He and I have had a few conversations about Fourstardave’s credentials over the years, and from those, the information I’ve been given is that his resume does not have enough wins over top-tier competition for the committee’s liking.

This is a fair, accurate assessment of his body of work. As I’ve mentioned, Fourstardave wasn’t close to the top horse of his era. Having said that, if the purpose of the Hoofprints Walk of Fame is, as stated online in a recent NYRA release, to honor the most prolific and notable horses to compete at the track, how can one justify Fourstardave’s exclusion? It is physically impossible for any horse to be as prolific as Fourstardave was from 1987 to 1994. His wins spanned three Presidents, for crying out loud! And notable? The track the Hoofprints Walk of Fame sits outside of has a Grade 1 race named in his honor, and one of the side streets near the backyard bears his name, too.

If the purpose of the Hoofprints Walk of Fame is to honor prolific and notable horses, there is not a justification for Fourstardave’s exclusion. For the sake of this conversation, I don’t think it matters that he couldn’t beat the likes of Lure (to be fair, many others couldn’t, either). Over the course of his career, he accomplished something much, much greater. He gave fans a horse to follow and root for, one that wasn’t immediately retired at the first sign of trouble or handled with kid gloves because the connections couldn’t stand the thought of losing. We need more horses like that, and we need to appropriately honor the ones that have come and gone.

I don’t know if my voice carries to Saratoga from my little one-bedroom apartment in northern California. I’d like to think that it carries at least a few ounces of weight, and it’s my hope that the Hoofprints committee gives Fourstardave his due next summer.

THE DARK DAY FILES: Justify, Social Media, Bad Behavior, and a Challenge

In an age where it seems like the only people who get attention on social media are the ones with the loudest, knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues and breaking news, I prefer to take a contrarian approach. This is why I’ve waited a week to offer my thoughts on the retirement and legacy of Justify, who, to the surprise of very few, has seen his racing days come to an end.

I’ll keep my thoughts on Justify pretty brief, as there’s a much bigger issue I feel the need to tackle (more on that later). The words “undefeated Triple Crown winner” have only ever been uttered once before this year, and it was when Seattle Slew finished off a nine-race win streak in the Belmont. Slew, of course, came back to run as a 4-year-old, when he treated the racing world to several battles with the likes of Affirmed and Exceller, and in fact lost his very first start after the Belmont (in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park).

Justify won’t get the chance to race into his physical prime. Instead, we must settle for horse racing’s version of a firework, materializing into something brilliant with rarely-matched flair and disappearing just as quickly as it arrived. Would racing have benefited from Justify running a few more times? Of course, but this is a horse that had nothing left to prove. “Undefeated Triple Crown winner” is as powerful a resume as an equine specimen can possess, and in a year where, to be blunt, the handicap division leaves much to be desired, there is no dirt horse Justify could’ve conceivably run against and beaten that would have enhanced his legacy.

As a voter for both Eclipse Awards and racing’s Hall of Fame, I can unequivocally say these three things.

1) Justify is Champion 3-Year-Old Male.
2) Justify is the Horse of the Year.
3) Justify is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

With all due respect to the likes of Accelerate, Monomoy Girl, and others, “undefeated Triple Crown winner” is not a resume any other thoroughbred can top. Some may have a problem with him never facing older horses. I don’t.

This is where, unfortunately, my column takes a pretty sharp turn. If you’ve followed me on Twitter, you know that there have been a few instances where I’ve denounced the culture horse racing “fans” have created on social media. I put the word fans in quotation marks there because, in my opinion, if you’re not actively working to make the game better or more enjoyable for those who may see your content, you’re doing nothing productive, and you’re not a true fan.

At its peak, social media is a godsend. It’s a way to communicate with friends and loved ones, as well as a way to stay updated with regard to breaking news. I’ve made my career as a digital media professional for several different outlets, and I can attest to a number of times where the things social media allowed my employer(s) and I to do made for some pretty cool stuff. That’s one of the reasons I’m proud and privileged to do what I do for a living. At its nadir, though, Twitter is a cesspool where people with vile opinions and no regard for doing the right thing are given megaphones and an outlet for their rage.

Before I go further, two caveats: First of all, things that are openly satirical are usually okay. If it’s clear it’s parody, and if the stuff that’s being produced is all in good fun, it makes things more entertaining for everyone involved. If the subject can take a joke (and most people in racing are shockingly good-humored, or just don’t care about this stuff), that’s even better.

Secondly, I make an exception for people who make attempts to be critical in a constructive fashion. I have discussions about ticket structure all the time with a few handicappers I genuinely like and respect, and the exchange of differing viewpoints is all part of civilized debate, which is vital for any high-functioning society (and something that is becoming more and more rare of late!). I may disagree with someone’s thoughts on wagering theory. Someone may not think my ticket structure is sound. Both are perfectly okay, because there’s always an underlying element of respect in what’s being said.

No, my issues are with people who fit one or more of the following criteria.

– Think they know everything.
– Use the platform to say things to/about people that they would NEVER have the guts to say in person.
– Maintain a constant state of disrespect for those who interact with their content.

Needless to say, when Justify retired, many “fans” quickly checked one or more of these three boxes. A lot of people quickly determined that they knew more than Justify’s owners, trainers, or prospective breeders, while some others had incredibly strong views on his legacy and openly fought those who disagreed. There was at least one person who used this “opportunity” to bring up the incidents that occurred in Bob Baffert’s barn during the last days of Hollywood Park, when a number of his horses passed away under murky circumstances (Baffert was cleared of wrongdoing following a lengthy investigation, and you can read the report here).

I’ll ask one simple question, and I’ll happily take answers from anyone who wants to chime in: How does any of the behavior I’ve just described make the game better? People in racing that genuinely care about the sport are working hard to grow the game, especially given the likelihood of legalized sports betting within the next few years. This behavior, most of which is more suited for an elementary school playground, does nothing to entice people who would otherwise be new to the game to take an interest in it. Why do that when some of the most visible people on a social media platform come across as, for lack of a better term, completely miserable?

As a user of Twitter (chances are you accessed this column from there), you have the right to use the platform however you see fit, provided such behavior is covered by Twitter’s terms of service. With that in mind, shouting loudest, and in some cases most profanely or most condescendingly, does not make you a better or more authoritative source on the subject matter in question. Speaking as both a fan and someone who works in the sport on a daily basis, I have no patience for such nonsense, and it’s a big reason why I’ve taken a step back from my personal activity on the site.

If that makes me a snob, so be it. I’ve been called worse. The fact is that I expect better from people that read my content. Perhaps it makes me naïve, but I generally believe the people I interact with are good-hearted, intelligent folks looking to enjoy the sport that I’m lucky enough to work in. There’s nothing enjoyable about seeing stuff on social media platforms that’s downright rude.

We have a duty as racing fans to spread the good parts of this game to those who may not be as well-versed on the subject as we are. If we’re not actively doing that, we’re missing countless opportunities to make the game better at a time where, to be completely honest, the sport can’t afford it. If you think saying things you’d never say to someone in-person is more important than that, then I don’t have much time for you.

I’ll close with something that sums up my thoughts perfectly. If you’re a fan of the classic TV drama, “The West Wing,” you’ll love this. The lead-up to this scene is that Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is rallying the president’s senior advisors and challenging them to be better. It reflects the challenge that I’m issuing to you right now. If you think any of what I’ve said applies to your social media stances of late, stop it and realize that there are bigger issues in play here than egos and the need to be right all the time.

We can be better.

We must be better.

 

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: The Hall of Fame Cases of Lady Eli and Shared Belief

This past week, I put together a four-way poll on my Twitter page. I’d felt a desire to do some historical legacy-type pieces, so I asked about horses you, the reader, whose Hall of Fame credentials you’d want analyzed.

Naturally, instead of having a clear-cut winner, we had a tie. Rather than wuss out and pick only one (or do a run-off and be subject to yet another tie and/or shenanigans akin to what happens in some countries’ presidential elections!), I’ve decided to combine both opinions in this column, one that I hope gets people thinking and/or talking.

LADY ELI

Okay, here’s the first unpopular opinion of the column, and it centers around the fact that Lady Eli is one of the most popular horses of the past decade for reasons that have little to do with her talent on the racetrack. She stepped on a nail coming back from her scintillating performance in the 2015 Belmont Oaks and eventually contracted laminitis. Of course, she conquered that and came back to the races, where she would win four of her final eight starts (including three Grade 1 events at as many venues).

Get the pitchforks ready: When it comes to Hall of Fame consideration, I don’t care about anything except what a horse does within the confines of its arena. Yes, Lady Eli’s story is a phenomenal one, and credit must be given to the people around her (owner Sol Kumin, trainer Chad Brown, and Brown’s staff). With one exception (which carries a logical excuse), she showed up every single time, even after coming down with a condition that can be fatal. All of that is fantastic, but my Hall of Fame ballot has very little to do with emotion, and very much to do with what a horse accomplishes in its career on the track.

In using the oft-quoted Bill Parcells philosophy, “you are what your record says you are,” here’s what we’ve got as it pertains to Lady Eli.

Record: 14-10-3-0
Earnings: $2,959,800
Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Nine (Five)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Three)

What we have here is a really strong resume, though one that is not without its flaws. First, the good: After breaking her maiden first time out, she raced exclusively in stakes company. She recorded Grade 1 wins in four different seasons, in an era where the most promising horses in the game sometimes struggle to finish a second year of competition. I put a pretty heavy emphasis on longevity and consistency when looking at the horses on the annual ballot, and she checks those boxes emphatically.

Her Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf win was electric, and she nearly added a second such victory when falling by a nose two years later in the Filly and Mare Turf. Her lone clunker came in her final career start, but a reason for the poor effort was evident right away, as she suffered an ugly (though far from life-threatening) injury in last year’s Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar.

Now, the bad points: Turf horses, by nature, are up against it when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration. There’s a long-held stigma that dirt horses are superior to turf horses, and because of that, some of the best turf horses we’ve seen have to wait a while before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Lure, for instance, wasn’t enshrined until 20 years after completing a career that included two wins in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. For better or for worse, this hurts Lady Eli.

Additionally, her lack of a race against males is not ideal. Turf mares like Miesque, Goldikova, and even Tepin had multiple wins over the boys on big stages (Miesque and Goldikova are both Hall of Famers, while Tepin will likely get in at some point). None of Lady Eli’s 14 outings came against males, and while such a race isn’t necessary in determining her talent, it would’ve gone a long way at a point where voters are instructed, perhaps even encouraged, to nitpick. If she wins, say, the Grade 1 Fourstardave in 2017 instead of that summer’s Grade 2 Ballston Spa over fillies and mares, or even runs well in defeat in the former race, I don’t think there’s nearly as much question about her eventual Hall of Fame viability.

Ultimately, the question is this: If you take away the phenomenal, made-for-Hollywood story behind Lady Eli’s physical ailments and her recovery, is her on-track resume enough to enshrine her in Saratoga? There will undoubtedly be some that feel her credentials aren’t solid enough, or that she didn’t shine quite as brightly as Tepin (who Lady Eli somehow never ran against, in an oversight of epic proportions by racing offices with high-level, eight to nine-furlong turf races for older fillies and mares at their tracks!).

After minimizing the emotional element, perhaps she’s not a slam-dunk…but I think she did enough to merit induction. I simply cannot ignore a Breeders’ Cup winner that boasts four straight seasons with at least one Grade 1 victory, even if she may not have run against some of the top turf horses of her era.

THE VERDICT: HALL OF FAMER

SHARED BELIEF

Before we cannonball into the deep water, here’s a look at Shared Belief’s career, nutshelled in the same way Lady Eli’s was earlier in this column.

Record: 12-10-0-0
Earnings: $2,932,200
Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Eight (Five)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)

And now we get to the tough part. The discussion of Shared Belief’s career has to start with the antics that happened at the start of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Shared Belief had skipped the Triple Crown due to setbacks at the start of the year, but the son of Candy Ride came back with a vengeance, reeling off four straight wins to come into the Classic undefeated.

Many anticipated a showdown with dual classic winner (and future Hall of Famer) California Chrome. Unfortunately for racing fans, the 3-year-old Shared Belief had to worry about the most was Bayern, who took a hard left turn out of the gate and sent horses inside of him (including Shared Belief) pinballing into one another. When the dust settled, Bayern was left alone on the lead and held off Toast of New York and California Chrome, with Shared Belief left spinning his wheels in fourth.

Shared Belief rebounded from his first career defeat with three straight victories, each more impressive than the one before it. After a workmanlike win in the Grade 1 Malibu, he beat California Chrome on the square in the Grade 2 San Antonio before putting forth one of recent racing history’s most underappreciated brilliant performances in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.

Think about all of the talent that was on the racetrack in early-2015. American Pharoah would win the Triple Crown. Beholder would destroy the boys in the Pacific Classic. California Chrome was headed to Dubai (followed by a planned start at Royal Ascot), and Bayern was still kicking around in Bob Baffert’s barn. Following the Santa Anita Handicap, though, you’d be hard-pressed to say that any of those horses, on their best days, would’ve been able to beat the Shared Belief that waltzed home in 2:00 and change and seemed capable of so much more.

Alas, fate intervened. In addition to star-crossed California Chrome getting sent to the sidelines, Shared Belief would race just once more. He did not finish the Charles Town Classic after suffering a minor injury that could’ve been much worse if not for the expert skills of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who pulled him up immediately. Shared Belief was sent to Washington for rehabilitation, and a return was planned, but he suffered an attack of colic in December and was euthanized.

What I’m about to say may seem like a weird tangent, but go with it. I’m a big fan of Bill Simmons’s magnum opus, “The Book of Basketball.” In it, he refers to a theory that applies to a number of players that bordered on greatness, but could’ve been even greater. It goes something like this: If we’d had the ability to simulate a career 10 times, what we got was the worst possible outcome. Athletes that could’ve been great were hampered by injuries, or bad situations, or by things completely outside their control, and if some celestial force were to come and offer a one-time “do-over” as it pertained to one such career, we’d take it without a second thought.

That theory can more than adequately be applied to the career of Shared Belief. He showed brilliance as a 2-year-old, but did not contest the Triple Crown. When he came back, he routed older horses in a pair of Grade 1 races before the Classic, where a series of events produced more outrage than just about any other imaginable scenario (try to think of one that would’ve made people angrier and doesn’t include the words “sniper on the roof;” don’t worry, I’ll wait). After the Classic, he won three times, but was injured in his final career start and never got a chance to come back.

There’s an alternate universe where Shared Belief and California Chrome race each other multiple times at ages three, four, and five. Shared Belief wins a few. California Chrome wins a few. Horse racing gets a rivalry the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the days of Skip Away, Formal Gold, and Wills Way, with longtime horsemen and friends Jerry Hollendorfer and Art Sherman at the forefront, playfully uttering one-liners at each other like, “Well, if I don’t win, I hope you don’t, either.” Add in a rotating cast that includes the likes of Beholder, and perhaps even Arrogate near the end, and how exciting do some Saturdays become?

Feel cheated by the racing gods yet? I know I do. The fact is that there’s absolutely no telling how good Shared Belief could have been. He could’ve been the dirt version of Wise Dan, running his competition into the ground for years due to his status as a gelding rather than a full horse. Instead, he was a comet streaking across the sky, imperfect but undeniably memorable in a way many very talented horses of recent years are not.

Is he a Hall of Famer? That’s about the toughest question the nominating committee will be faced with in a few years, and I’m pretty happy I don’t have to make the decision. At his peak, he may have been the best horse in the world. However, I don’t think he had the opportunity to do as much with his talent as he should have. This is not his fault, nor the fault of those around him. Circumstances conspired to give us the unluckiest possible outcomes with regard to Shared Belief, all the way down to his early passing.

Will I protest if Shared Belief is eventually enshrined in Saratoga? No. Horses without his immense ability have been voted in before, and they’ll be voted in in the future. However, based solely on what he achieved on the track as compared to similar horses from his era, he likely won’t be on my ballot.

THE VERDICT: NOT A HALL OF FAMER

Analyzing My 2018 Hall of Fame Ballot

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.

Think I messed up? Have a question about the way I did things? Drop me a line. I read everything that comes in through this site, and I’m happy to discuss this further.