Which 25 Years?

The thing about every can of worms is someone must open it. In this case, I humbly accept.

After watching Point Given annihilate his opponents in the June 9 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), I began to wonder when trainer Bob Baffert would become eligible for election to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.

After all, Baffert has now won two-thirds of the Triple Crown in three of the past five years. Meaning this white-haired guy could have won three Triple Crowns in the past five years.

According to the Hall of Fame committee, "trainers become eligible after 25 years as licensed trainers in Thoroughbred racing."
But what does that mean exactly?

Twenty-five years of only training horses? Twenty-five years of just training Thoroughbreds? Twenty-five continuous years of training? Twenty-five years after saddling your first Thoroughbred winner?

D. Wayne Lukas was enshrined in 1999, but not without controversy. Many thought Lukas was eligible years earlier, including the late Jim Bolus, a noted racing historian who dug up charts showing Lukas as the winning trainer of a Thoroughbred race as early as 1967.

Perhaps the problem was when Lukas won that 1967 race with Lustre's Dream at Park Jefferson in South Dakota, he was not a full-time horse trainer. He was a full-time high school basketball coach who in his spare time ran both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horses at small bush tracks.

So what? Shouldn't the 25-year eligibility clock start ticking the day you win your first Thoroughbred race?

Voters look at a trainer's entire career. They can see how many years a trainer worked just with Quarter Horses, how many years he trained both breeds, and when he switched -- - if he did - -- entirely to Thoroughbreds. More importantly, they look at what a trainer has accomplished and if those results suggest inclusion into the Hall of Fame.

Let's face facts. Fact One: Bob Baffert will get into the Racing Hall of Fame. Fact Two: Bob Baffert will get into the Racing Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

The only unanswered question is what year it will be when Baffert accepts his plaque in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Baffert won his first Thoroughbred races in 1982 (nine wins and one stakes winner), and then won only 10 other Thoroughbred races through 1988. He switched over completely to Thoroughbreds in 1991. Consider the following:

  • The measure of greatness is winning grade I races. Baffert has trained 32 individual grade I winners. He also has trained 74 individual grade II and grade III stakes winners.
  • Eighty additional Baffert-trainees haven't won a graded race. They are mere stakes winners. That's over 150 stakes winners in 11-plus years.
  • Since 1989, Baffert has had 4,365 starts (through June 17, 2001), 990 wins (22.7%), 668 seconds, and 636 thirds. His horses have finished in the money 52.5%.
  • Baffert's horses have earned over $76.7 million since 1989 ($62.4 million since 1997).
  • He has led North American trainers by earnings each of the past three years and is on course to do so again.
  • He has sent two horses to Dubai to win the World Cup (UAE-I), Silver Charm and Captain Steve.

The goal of every breeder, owner, trainer, and jockey is to win any stakes race they can. But let's face it, the Triple Crown races are more coveted than any other.

Since 1991, when Baffert switched to Thoroughbreds, 11 trainers have been inducted in to the Hall of Fame. Five have never won a Triple Crown race - -- Bill Mott, P.G. Johnson, Bobby Frankel, Jimmy Croll, and T.J. Kelly. Neither has Richard Mandella, who will be enshrined this summer.

Does it mean those six trainers are unworthy of inclusion in the Hall of Fame? Of course not. To many horsemen, winning Triple Crown races is not the end all to their personal training success.

Still, Woody Stephens will always be remembered for winning five straight Belmonts, and Wayne Lukas, should he win one more Triple Crown race, for being the all-time leader in that category (he is currently tied with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons with 13 wins apiece).

Bob Baffert is a master at winning Triple Crown races. But as evidenced by over 150 stakes winners, he knows how to win other races as well. He is one of the premier trainers of our time. Let's not make him wait until 2016 to get his Hall of Fame recognition.