The 2008 Hall of Fame inductees pose with their plaques.

The 2008 Hall of Fame inductees pose with their plaques.

Skip Dickstein

Hall of Fame: It's All About the Horse

From the keynote speaker to the final inductee, the message was the same Aug. 4 at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame ceremony. That plain and simple mantra was, “It is all about the horse.”

Though certainly not a coordinated effort, guest speaker Dr. Dean Richardson, who spoke first, and inductee trainer Carl Nafzger, who was last on the agenda, bookended the others on the program at the 90-minute induction at the Humphrey H. Finney Pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Richardson, a noted equine surgeon, is the Charles W. Raker professor of equine surgery at the George D. Widener Hospital at the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania. Though he said he was not going to speak about his most famous patient, Barbaro, many of his comments seemed directed at the work he and the team at New Bolton performed to try to save the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner.

“You must treat the horse as an individual,” Richardson said to the standing-room-only crowd. “Those are the people you most enjoy working for; those that understand that; those that love the horse.

“Many advances in treating serious injuries occur because those types of owners say, ‘Don’t quit.’” That type of attitude, Richardson said, “helps us better manage difficult cases.

“Everyone is disappointed by failures, but we must try.”

Nafzger, as he has often done, gave credit for the success he and his wife, Wanda, have enjoyed in the industry, to the horses entrusted in his care over the years.

“We need to return to putting the emphasis on the horse. That is what brought us here,” the trainer of Kentucky Derby winners Street Sense and Unbridled told the audience. “The horse is easy to train…it is hard to be patient. The horse never lies. We’ve got to make racing again about the horse.”

A Texas native and former champion bull rider, Nafzger always had a relatively small stable, but a highly productive one. Besides winning the Derby, Unbridled won the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), and Street Sense became the first horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and return the following year to win the Derby. Nafzger also trained another champion in Banshee Breeze, and other top horses such as Home At Last, Vicar, Lady Joanne, and Mayo On the Side.

Nafzger was introduced by Street Sense’s owner, Jim Tafel.

Nafzger, 67, drew loud applause when he mentioned Unbridled’s owner, Frances Genter, with those in attendance all aware of the classic televised moment during the 1990 Derby when he turned to her as Unbridled was nearing the finish and said, “You’re going to win the Derby. Mrs. Genter, I love you.”

He credited 95-year-old Hall of Famer John Nerud with teaching him to keep horses “fat, happy, and never work them farther than a half-mile.” And, Nafzger pointed to Bobby Frankel in the audience and said he overheard the Hall of Fame trainer say something years ago that always stuck with him.

“Bobby had a horse that got beat 15 lengths and came back to win his next start,” Nafzger recalled. “People ask, ‘How is that possible?’ I heard Bobby say that a trainer must ask of himself, “Where did he (the horse) stop and why did he stop there?”

In addition to being an Eclipse Award winner and new member of the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame, Nafzger is also a member of the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and professional Bull Riders’ Ring of Honor.

The loudest ovation of the ceremony came when jockey Edgar Prado was called to the stage with his presenter, trainer Robert Klesaris, who recalled when he was first asked to ride Prado.

“His agent then was Victor Sanchez, who wanted to introduce me to Edgar,” Klesaris recalled of the morning 20 years ago. Edgar told me, “I need a yab.” The crowd roared, knowing Prado had trouble with English after arriving from Peru.

Klesaris said he took Prado to Boston and, “I became the leading trainer, but Edgar had a problem in that he kept getting suspended.” A steward told Klesaris that, “This kid is not going to make it.”

Prado went on to Maryland, where he was the leading rider in 1991-93 and 1997-99. He later moved his tack to New York and won his first riding title during the 2000 Belmont fall meeting.

Prado, Klesaris said, “may be a quiet gentleman, but he is a keg of dynamite on a horse.”

The 41-year-old Prado, who rode his 6,000th winner earlier this year, said he is a testament to “dedication, persistence, and dreams.”

Prado thanked many owners and trainers, saying of the late trainer John Tammaro, “He made me see the difference between a good and bad rider.”

Prado brought tears to many in attendance when he said, “The best trip of my life was with my friend Barbaro. He is in my heart forever; I miss you my friend.”

A moment later, the jockey got teary-eyed when he spoke of his late mother, but then got a huge laugh from the crowd when he thanked her for making him, “5-foot 3 and 114 pounds.”

Besides winning the Derby on Barbaro, Prado rode Horse of the Year Saint Liam and champions Smuggler and Lemon Drop Kid, as well as such stakes winners as Harlan’s Holiday, Buck’s Boy, Kitten’s Joy, and Bird Town.

Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps accepted the Hall of Fame plaque for Inside Information, the ninth horse bred and/or owned by a member of the Phipps family to be inducted in the Hall of Fame.

“Four years ago, I was thrilled and honored to be inducted,” the filly’s trainer, Shug McGaughey said. “Today, I have similar feelings.”

“She had some neurological problems, but you would never have known it from watching her run,” Phipps said. “She has the heart of a champion; that intense determination to run and to win.”

Inside Information was bred and raced by Phipps to 14 wins in 17 starts (six grade I scores), culminating with a record performance in her final start when she won the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) by 131⁄2 lengths, a margin that still holds.

The biggest laugh came when Mike Shannon, owner of inductee Manila, thanked the person that has believed enough in his horse’s merits to continue nominating him for inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

“People asked me how it felt to get in after being nominated 10 times and I said, ‘It feels better than getting turned down 11 times.’ But this Bud’s for the person that kept nominating him. You would think after the first seven or eight times, that person would have given up.”

Better yet, Shannon said, “This San Miguel’s for you,” because the breeder and original owner of the horse, Eduardo Cojuangco, owns San Miguel brewery.

Hall of Fame trainer LeRoy Jolley, who trained Manila, said the induction was about two stories, a horse story and a human story. “When we got him, he was a little slow and a little small. They gave us the luxury of time, and he ended up winning over 11 different tracks and setting three course records.”

The human story, Jolley said, involved Cojuangco and Shannon. Cojuango had to flee the Philippines because of his association with deposed ruler Ferdinand Marcos. “In 24 hours, he went from a leading businessman to fleeing the country and landing in Hawaii,” Jolley said. “He called his friend, Mike Shannon, who went there with cash and credit cards. He agreed to buy the horses and that cash helped Cojuangco get his businesses back.”

Shannon thanked the late Tic Tic Trinidad, who bought horses for Cojuangco for many years, and Lane’s End Farm owner Will Farish, “who was a great partner and let us keep the horse in training at 4.”

Manila won 12 of 18 starts, including the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT).

The plaque for Ancient Title, who won 24 of 57 starts, was accepted by Lynn Russell Meyers, granddaughter of the horse’s owners and breeders, William and Ethel Kirkland. She gave the credit to trainer Keith Stucki.

”My grandparents had a small stable and were getting rid of the horses,” she said. “Keith convinced them to keep Ancient Title.”

Ancient Title won 17 graded stakes, including the Californian twice, Hollywood Gold Cup Invitational Handicap, Charles H. Strub Stakes, and San Antonio Stakes (all gr. I). He also shipped to Saratoga and won the Whitney Stakes (gr. II; now a grade I).

Jockey Ismael “Milo” Valenzuela was unable to attend, having received his plaque in a ceremony earlier this summer in California. A video was shown of his acceptance, and his children were in Saratoga Springs to formally accept on behalf of their father. Valenzuela won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard both Tim Tam and Forward Pass, and captured 22 stakes aboard Kelso.