Critic's Corner - Hall of Fame Day

The influence of steeplechase and quarter horse racing on the Thoroughbred sport was in abundant evidence at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony Friday. 

Of the sixteen honorees, presenters and acceptors on the program, four had their roots in quarter horse racing, six were linked closely to steeplechasing and jockey Eddie Maple voiced more than a word or two of gratitude to the steeplechase community for helping him to establish himself.

Brad McKenzie, a director of Los Alamitos Race Course, and Mike Pegram, accepting on behalf of his filly Silverbulletday, should be given recognition for making the shortest and most appropriate speeches of the six tandems that took the stage.  D. Wayne Lukas, presenting honoree Bob Baffert, put the huge audience in stitches with several canned, but clever, one-liners.  Maple drew applause for praising the horse and asking that the audience protects the breed beyond its racing years.  Baffert, the sport’s most endearing personality, stirred everyone’s emotions, made people chuckle repeatedly and admitted he was lucky.  But, then, you’re not surprised by that, are you?

Most others, including surprise speaker Charlie Fenwick, Jr., proved they don’t fully comprehend the impact of brevity.  Keynote speaker Chris McCarron forgot which topic he was called upon to talk about.  He ended his address – an infomercial for his jockey’s school – by saying that he was “grateful beyond words,” but he sure used a lot of them.  The program lasted two hours and fourteen minutes, about the length of Yo Yo Ma’s performance Thursday evening at SPAC sans intermission.

There were highlights.  Video projections accompanied each introduction.  Front man Ed Bowen was charming as usual.  Director of Communications Mike Kane, exuding self-assurance, has grown swiftly into his role as emcee.

Ironically, Kane was most charming when admitting that he forgot to include Bill Mott in the introduction of Hall of Fame members one year and then called him a jockey in another.  This year, as if scripted, he proceeded to fumble again by calling jockey John Rotz “Gentleman Jim” instead of “Gentleman John.”  People laughed; then the slip went away like a kiss on the wind.

Writers of Bill Nack’s caliber should be a fixture of each ceremony.  The eloquence of his tribute to the late Joe Hirsch upon the announcement that the Museum will be initiating a Roll of Merit for turf writers in Hirsch’s name was reminiscent of Frank Deford’s keynote address, delivered nearly a decade ago.

Following the ceremony, down the block from the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion where it was held, Courageous Cat won the $150,000 grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes – a 1 1/8 miles test on the Mellon Turf Course for 3-year-olds.

Later in the day, across the street from the colt’s triumph, fun-loving comrades, dancing the fox trot to Sly and the Family Stone, concluded the banner day at the black-tie Museum Ball.

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