Heavenly Prize, Justify, And The Changing Tides Of Hall Of Fame Inductions

by | 08.17.2018 | 12:58pm
National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

This year's induction ceremony to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame was focused on historical figures in the sport, and a lone modern inductee in top filly Heavenly Prize. Racing fans and insiders reacted with surprise that there was just one inductee from a ballot of four horses, three jockeys, and three trainers offered to voters earlier this year.

Voting procedures for the Hall of Fame have been tweaked here and there through the years, and some readers questioned whether the 2018 result was in some way problematic for the Hall — or reflective of a fault in voting rules.

According to Brien Bouyea, Hall of Fame and communications director, having a lighter year for inductions is part of the historic ebb and flow characteristic of other sports.

“You see it with other halls of fame – you have years where the class is very well-known and there's a lot going in and you have years where it's just viewed as not as strong. I think some of the candidates that were finalists this year, I think they're going to get in eventually,” said Bouyea, who noted the National Baseball Hall of Fame had only an umpire and an executive inducted one year. “It's tough and we have tweaked the process a lot over the years and I think there are still things we could do to improve it. But I think it's a good process overall.”

The only change to voting procedures this year over 2017 actually had the potential to let more candidates in. Previously, voters were asked to choose one inductee in each category of male and female racehorse, trainer, and jockey. In 2012, the Hall of Fame eliminated categories, anticipating super fillies Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta would both be eligible in 2016. Now, the rules allow the top four vote-getters entry, regardless of gender and species.

The problem with that, Bouyea said, was a candidate could be well-received by voters and still not get in.

“We didn't want to have a year – and obviously it didn't work out this way this year with the voters – where we had seven or eight candidates people really liked and they all voted for them and they all got over the percentage required to get in and then we would only take the top four of them,” said Bouyea. “If you got the numbers and the voters thought you belonged in the Hall of Fame, there should be no minimum or maximum numbers of getting in.”

Now, all candidates receive 50.1 percent or more of the vote will be inducted.

As it was, the relatively new Pillars of the Turf category dominated the day with a dozen entrants, but Bouyea said that had been planned well before Hall of Fame voters turned in their ballots. In fact, the category is so backlogged with significant figures who do not fit under the trainer or jockey headings he expects a similar number will be waived in next year. (Pillars are required to get 75 percent approval from the selection committee to be elected.) The entry of just one contemporary candidate simplified event planning for the staff, who had been considering two separate induction ceremonies before the vote.

In any case, Bouyea expects it's unlikely the Hall will see a lone contemporary entry in the near future; there are some big names coming eligible soon.

In order to be eligible for induction, horses must be retired at least five calendar years. Jockeys must be 20 years from licensure, and trainers must be 25 years into licensure – which is why major names like Todd Pletcher and American Pharoah are not yet in the Hall.

In 2019, Royal Delta will be eligible for induction. 2020 will see Wise Dan, Groupie Doll, Game On Dude, and Kiaran McLaughlin become eligible. American Pharoah, Shared Belief, and Todd Pletcher will follow in 2021. 2022 will include Beholder, Tepin, and Rafael Bejarano. California Chrome, Songbird, Lady Eli, and Arrogate will all come eligible in 2023.

Bouyea is often asked why 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah is being made to wait the requisite five years before voters can bring him in. After all, an exception was made in 1974 for Secretariat and in 1981 for Seattle Slew. Although he has no doubts American Pharoah will get in on his first ballot, Bouyea isn't a fan of making exceptions.

“The Museum wants to be consistent with its election procedures and not make special concessions based on specific accomplishments or popularity of a candidate,” he said. “We think the five-year rule for retired horses works very well. It allows an appropriate amount of time for legacies to be evaluated and for voters to also really consider the era the horse ran in and the accomplishments of his/her contemporaries in that time period.”

Bouyea is curious to see how discussions go when 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify becomes eligible, though. Assuming the colt gets into the Hall of Fame, he will have fewer career starts than any other entrant with just six.

“Obviously he's a Triple Crown winner but six career starts – I know a lot of people on our nominating committee and a lot of voters will say that's not a career,” he said. “We're dealing with that, we're seeing more and more horses retire early. So, what defines a Hall of Fame career? It's certainly different than it was 15 to 20 years ago.”

Assuming Justify gets in, his brief but stellar career could open the door for others who had eight or nine starts, a couple of which may have been maiden or non-graded stakes including Smarty Jones, Big Brown, and Rags to Riches – all of whom have been on the nominating committee's radar but haven't quite yet made the ballot.

As with Eclipse Awards, it is up to each individual voter to determine what constitutes a 'Hall of Fame' career for themselves. Voters use different criteria, applied with varying levels of flexibility, to each equine and human candidate. The beauty of the current process, however, is that when a sizable number of them agree, the candidate will get their coveted plaque.

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