Ghostzapper was a brilliantly fast horse who won the Breeders' Cup Classic. He had as much talent as any to race over the last three decades.
And he won't get my Hall of Fame vote.
Ghostzapper is one of four horses up for Hall of Fame induction this year making their first appearance on the ballot and he's the most prominent of the bunch. (The others are Xtra Heat, Ashado and Housebuster). Talented or not, Ghostzapper barely ran. He made 11 career starts and never raced more than four times in a year.
That makes him pretty typical of an on-going era in racing where most good horses are treated like they're as soft as cotton candy. Baseball has its steroid era. Horse racing has its "creampuff" era, and few top horses are more indicative of these times than Ghostzapper.
Born in 2000 with the "creampuff" era in full tilt, Ghostzapper was handled with kid gloves by his trainer, Bobby Frankel. He obviously wasn't the soundest horse around, but Frankel simply wouldn't take a chance with him. He was put on the shelf after winning the 2003 Vosburgh, raced sparingly in 2004 and then called it quits after romping in the 2005 Met Mile.
You can argue that Frankel did a good job of getting a lot out of a horse who had physical problems and/or that Ghostzapper was sensational when right. That's all true, but is he a Hall of Famer?
To this voter, a Hall of Famer is a horse who proved itself time and time again, who passed numerous tests and conquered many challenges and challengers. How many times must a horse have run to be Hall of Fame worthy? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know it's more than 11.
There are parallels to baseball. If Ghostzapper were a baseball player he would be something along the lines of Don Mattingly. Mattingly was the best in the game or close to it, but only for a while. He had five spectacular years, one pretty good one and a bunch that were mediocre. Mattingly, whose career was hampered by injuries, didn't pass the test of time and that's why he's not in the Hall of Fame.
Racing Hall of Fame voters are going to have to figure out how horses from the "creampuff" era should be treated because there are a slew of them coming along who will be up for induction. Ghostzapper is just the first. Over the last 15 years or so, trainers haven't demanded much of anything from their horses. Concentrating on select spots, they'd race them four or five times a year and usually for no more than two campaigns. Ten or 11 starts has come to be considered a full career by owners and trainers who became convinced that the timid approach was the right approach.
Whether it's Ghostzapper, Bernardini (8 career starts), Big Brown (8 career starts), Invasor (12 career starts, 6 in the U.S.), Rags to Riches (7 career starts), Smarty Jones (9 career starts) or others, horses who came and went in what seemed like an instant will not get my vote. They simply don't belong in the Hall of Fame alongside true greats who ran 35, 40 times or more.
Eventually this nonsense will change. Some owner is going to finally figure out that there's a boatload of money to be made actually running their horses because purses are at record levels in places like New York and so many major stakes races still attract five and six-horse fields. Just as Frankel and a few others popularized the idea of giving horses two months off between races, some smart and respected trainer is going to go in the other direction, a direction others will follow.
Until then, Hall of Fame voters need to consider what greatness is all about. There's more too it than talent and a handful of stakes wins.
Good at Being Bad: Tactical Sting, the anti-Rapid Redux, will be back Thursday at Laurel looking to extend his losing streak to 59 straight. Trained by Jose Nunez, the 7-year-old gelding is 2 for 72 lifetime. He last won May 1, 2009 in Atlantic City.
Has Racing Turned a Corner?: Handle for U.S. races was up 7.6 percent in February over 2011 figures. That may be a little misleading because there was one more day in February 2012 versus February 2011 because of Leap Year, but, nonetheless, the numbers are a positive sign. In December, handle was also up over the prior year, remarkably the first time that had happened since November, 2009, more than two years. Wagering was down 1.1 percent in January before February's big numbers. With betting having been up in two of the last three months, it looks like the worst is over.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.