Hall system lowers bar for equine athletes

When Silver Charm is inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Monday in Saratoga it will mark the unfortunate end of an era. Silver Charm was the type of horse we simply don't see any more. He raced into his 5-year-old campaign and made 22 lifetime starts, winning 11 of them. He won graded stakes at ages 2, 3, 4 and 5, among the many reasons he is a worthy Hall of Famer. Future inductees will pale in comparison to him.

Now that he's about to go into the Hall of Fame, what's left for upcoming classes? The large majority of the talent pool of future Hall of Famers is made up of horses whose careers were cut short by injury or an owner's rush to send them to the breeding shed.

That's going to create an interesting dilemma for voters -- do the stars of the modern era, a period in racing's history where the majority of top horses have had very limited campaigns -- deserve to be enshrined alongside the true greats and warriors of the game?

Unfortunately, that's a moot point. The Hall of Fame insists that one horse and one human from each of the eligible categories be inducted each year. That doesn't allow voters to take a stand in years where the candidates are particularly weak and make sure that no one gets in.

The horse with the fewest lifetime starts in the Hall of Fame is Majestic Prince, who raced 10 times. Even the ill-fated Hall of Famer Ruffian, who broke down and was euthanized during the middle of her 3-year-old campaign, had 11 career starts. Then there are horses like Stymie, who ran a staggering 131 times.

They sure don't make them like Stymie anymore. The last racing star that had anything close to a lengthy campaign was Skip Away, who ran 38 times, was named Horse of the Year in 1998 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004. They don't even make them like Skip Away any more.

The list of horses of the year since Skip Away is largely made up of talented horses who came, conquered and quickly disappeared. What do you do with Invasor, who raced only seven times? Ghostzapper and Mineshaft didn't last much longer. Both raced 11 times. How about Charismatic and Point Given, two horses that never made it past the summer of their 3-year-old years?

The lone exception among recent Horse of the Year winners happens to be a filly. Azeri raced 24 times over a span of four years and is a deserving Hall of Famer.

An even more vexing problem will be what to do with a few of the recent 3-year-old stars who ran so brilliantly before their careers ended. Smarty Jones was a fantastic horse, but he raced just nine times. Afleet Alex had just 12 career starts and never ran again after the Belmont. Barbaro presents an even bigger problem. Though immensely talented and among the most popular horses who ever lived, does he really deserve to go into the Hall of Fame having had just seven career starts?

The Barbaros and Smarty Joneses of our sport remind me of Bo Jackson. One of the most gifted and versatile athletes ever, he seemed destined to make not only the football but the baseball Hall of Fame.

An All-Star in both sports, he was a punishing running back. In his four seasons in the NFL, he rushed for 2,782 yards and 16 touchdowns with an average yards per carry of 5.4. His average of 5.4 yards per carry is the highest average in NFL history, however, it is not recognized because he did not reach the required minimum number of carries. In baseball, he gave a glimpse of what he could do in that field in 1989 when he hit 32 home runs, drove in 105 runs and stole 26 bases.

But Jackson was never again the same after suffering a serious hip injury while playing football in 1990. Despite all his talents and his many accomplishments, he hasn't come close to being elected to either Hall of fame. The reason? He didn't last nearly long enough.

When the time comes, I will have a hard time voting for horses like Invasor and, perhaps, to a lesser extent, Barbaro. But they'll both likely make the Hall of Fame. That's a reflection on how low the bar has become when measuring greatness and the current and regrettable system that requires that one horse has to be voted in every year.

Oh, well, what's a voter to do? I sure miss the good old days.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.