The Hall of Fame and Hall of Famers

By Sean Clancy
From The Saratoga Special, reprinted with permission

Romance isn't dead. History still counts. Emotion is alive and well. Hall of Fame Day, Saratoga, 2001. The stoic giants cried on August 6, 2001.

And it felt great.

Horse racing is a tough game, everyone involved knows that. Horses get hurt, dreams get dashed, hours pile up, gut checks come in bunches. There are days when you wish you were anywhere but bombarding down the game of Thoroughbred racing.

Then they induct six legends into the shrine on Union Avenue. Tom Smith, the late great trainer of Seabiscuit. The weight-carrying colt beating Maskette. The Argentinean blur, Paseana. The smoke- colored, smoke-moving Holy Bull. The indomitable worker, Earlie Fires. And the technician, Richard Mandella.

The Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion is packed with everyone who loves the game; from Mike Kelly, the jock's agent, to Bob Baffert, the trainer, to Penny Chenery, the first lady, to the relentless fan without a say in the sport hoping to bump elbows with a hero.

And they're everywhere.

Navy blazers with Hall of Fame emblems decorate the front rows. Walter Blum, Allen Jerkens, Braulio Baeza, Mikey Smithwick, Tommy Kelly, Don Brumfield, Jerry Fishback, Dooley Adams, Scotty Schulhofer, P.G. Johnson, Jimmy Croll, Jerry Bailey, Pat Day, Bill Mott, Ron McAnally and a few more we're probably forgetting. All sitting there, like regular people. Listening.

An outside-the-sport writing legend captivates each and every person. A letter about old-time horsemanship is read and consumed. A grown man imitates a horse (dialogue and all). One Hall of Famer leans on a cane and talks about a new one. A boot-tough jockey cries after one line. Dreams are mentioned. Mentors are thanked. Horses are revered.

Emmy and Eclipse Award winning author Frank DeFord bantered back and forth from comedy to satire to editorial in his opening address. All of it, enthralling. From busting on Bobby Knight to remembering Ruffian to railing handicaps to regaling the Hall of Fame, DeFord was as good as they get.

The day drifted back to Tom Smith's era of training horses and not worrying about people. A letter written by Laura Hillenbrand brought Tom Smith and Seabiscuit to life. The trainer was a true horseman without the distraction of socialization. He talked to his horses and that's all that mattered. His plaque now hangs in the Hall of Fame.

Maskette, a 2-year-old of 1908, stepped through the gates next. She won 12 of her 17 races, carried 127 as a 2-year-old. Did they make horses differently back then?

Sid Craig decided the best way to accept Paseana's award was to become the race mare. And he pulled it off. The relationship between horse and trainer and jockey was eloquently related by Craig in Paseana's words. A new approach and a good one at that.

Jimmy Croll came next. The old gentleman balanced on a cane and talked in a low voice. The crowd leaned out of their chairs or over their balconies straining to hear what the Hall of Famer had to say about a horse who was given to him and who gave to us all every time. When he said, "good friends" he really had us.

Earlie Fires walked to the podium and instinctively pulled the microphone down a foot. He started in on a middle of the road speech about being a jockey. He made it one line. In an only-Arkansas twang, Fires, paused after his opening remark. When he started on the second line, it was all over. There was a man who has survived 35 plus years of riding races crying over a tribute. "It's a little emotional for me and I'm sorry for breaking down,"

Fires said as he split thank-yous to his brothers, his horses, his trainers. Old names were thrown out like confetti. "I love the business, I love the horses more than anything," Fires said. He finished with a "thank you y'all." Then he swiped his left hand across his tearing eyes. He had us all.

Allen Jerkens introduced Richard Mandella. "We were all OK, until Earlie got up here," is how Mandella started. He thanked his father, his wife, his son, his first bosses. He told stories about being an exercise rider and dreaming of having his own brown and white webbings. Can you imagine, Richard Mandella galloping horses and wishing to be a trainer?

Continued. . . .