Katy Perry would have loved Friday’s Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony, if, of course, she thinks that West Coast boys are as unforgettable as the girls.
Five of this year’s seven inductees had racing roots in California: trainer M.E. “Buster” Millerick; jockey Don Pierce; and horses Azeri, Best Pal, and Point Given. The West Coast vibe was heightened by the presence of keynote speaker Gary Stevens; Kentucky was represented by inductee Harry Bassett, Louisiana by Randy Romero.
The first order of business in the Hall of Fame ceremony is to honor the inductees who are present; as their names are called and their accomplishments announced, they stand as a group in the front of the pavilion, a tableau of living racing history, among them Allen Jerkens; Ron Turcotte; D. Wayne Lukas; Angel Cordero, Jr.; Jonathan Sheppard; and Pat Day.
Click on the names to get to the inductee’s Hall of Fame page, which will provide details of his accomplishments.
Keynote: Gary Stevens
Stevens promised to keep his remarks brief and sort of did; watching video highlights from his career, he remarked ruefully, ““Boy, it was nice to have hair.”
Commenting on what it takes to achieve racing greatness, he alluded to Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. “Each,” he said, “will find her place in the Hall of Fame. They are the best thing that’s happened to racing in years.”
Michael Paulson, accepting the plaque for Azeri, thanked his wife for the carrots and peppermints she had fed the filly over the years, and he, too, acknowledged racing’s present while honoring its past. Watching Azeri race, he said, made him nervous, and he compared his nervousness to what he imagines the Mosses feel as they watch Zenyatta race now.
“They said that you had to beat the boys to be considered a great racemare,” he said, a little defiantly. “I have a few things to say about that. She did beat the boys when she was 2002 Horse of the Year. She beat Left Bank, War Emblem, and Rock of Gibraltar.”
He also pointed out that even though Azeri didn’t win the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic, she still beat eight males, including Funny Cide and other horses who’d run Triple Crown races. He emphasized the rough trip she’d gotten.
Paulson closed by quoting what he called Vic Stauffer’s “spine-tingling” stretch call in the 2003 Milady Handicap: “Azeri showing the speed of Ruffian, the class of Lady’s Secret, the heart of Personal Ensign. One of the greats of all time. This is Azeri!”
Larry Mabee, the son of Best Pal’s owners and breeders John and Betty Mabee, called Best Pal the “epitome of horses.”
Best Pal was “a great big ugly cuss,” recalled Mabee. “In the barn, he was tough, mean, ornery. You didn’t turn your back on him.” He remembered that Best Pal had once bitten off a groom’s finger.
“The memories,” he said, “flow back in.
“In this group, this organization, this honor is a true, true honor.” And he exhorted the crowd: “Keep racing.”
The plaque for 19th century champion Harry Bassett was accepted by former first lady of Kentucky Libby Jones, the great grand-daughter of Harry Bassett’s breeder of record, A.J. Alexander.
“I wish that I had some wonderful personal anecdotes,” she smiled, “but Harry Bassett preceded me by a few years.”
Alexander and his brother were running a breeding farm in the midst of the Civil War, she said, and in the hopes of dissuading both Confederate and Union forces from commandeering their forces, they flew the Union Jack. While their attempt was often unsuccessful, they did manage to prevent the great Lexington from being taken, and in 1867, he sired Harry Bassett.
According to Jones, she and her husband Brereton, the former governor of Kentucky, who are active breeders and owners, bought back the original house on the farm on which Harry Bassett was born, “trying,” she said, “to carry on the tradition.” Harry Bassett’s Hall of Fame plaque will be placed next to a painting of him.
Terence Collier of Fasig-Tipton, a former business association of Thoroughbred Corporation, owner of Point Given, was one of two who spoke on behalf of the 2001 Horse of the Year. He quipped, “Bob Baffert told me that I have as much time to speak as it took Point Given to win the Travers.”
[I had not previously known that Point Given’s Travers was the slowest mile and a quarter ever run.]
Collier offered Gary Stevens absolution for his Kentucky Derby loss on Point Given. The blame, he said, was not Stevens’ alone, suggesting that the jockey got on the horse with so many instructions for so many different scenarios that his head was likely spinning.
Point Given, according to Collier, was “furious” at being kept off the pace and “sulked home.”
He also related a story in which one of the horse’s owners, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, encountered a group of young bettors on the night of the Derby. “How was your day?” the prince reportedly inquired. Not great, they responded. “We bet on that bum Point Given and lost a lot of money.” Collier continued that the prince pulled out a wad of cash and paid off each of the bettors…whose gambling investments, apparently, grew larger when they realized what was going on.
Point Given’s second speaker, Bob Baffert, apologized for forgetting to thank his wife last year when he was inducted, and characterized Point Given as “for three months the best horse in the sport. Maybe the best I ever trained.”
According to presenter and Hall of Fame jockey John Rotz, Pierce was a “money rider, a high stakes rider.” Sometimes, he said, jockeys are labeled: as turf riders, as come-from-behind riders, as two-year-old riders. “Don Pierce,” he said, “did it all.”
He said that Pierce, who rode from 1954-1984, believed that he’d ridden “in the best of times,” despite today’s high purses. “Myself,” said Rotz, “I’d like to have a crack at some of those Breeders’ Cup races.”
Pierce choked up when he began to speak, then offered a little levity. “When I asked John to speak for me,” he said, “John told me, ‘I can’t think of anything good to say about you.’”
Characterized in the Hall of Fame video tribute as a “ladies’ man” for his rides on Go For Wand and Personal Ensign, Romero was introduced by Ken Dunn, former president of Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park.
Dunn praised Romero’s work on spreading information about the importance of diet and nutrition for jockeys, and on figuring out how to assign weights that are fair to both jockeys and horses.
As a rider, Romero had, Dunn said, “talent, toughness, and tenacity.”
“He was the Charlie Hustle of racing…except that Randy only bet on Randy.” [And, as a friend pointed out, Randy’s in the Hall of Fame; Pete Rose isn’t.]
Romero said that his induction was a dream come true. “I’m happy that I’m on this side of the dirt when it happened,” he said.
Saying that God is the most important person in his life, Romero then thanked his agents. “I had about 40 of ‘em,” he joked.
He was, he said, “blessed to have ridden two of the greatest fillies of all time.”
A surprise guest, a representative of the Louisiana governor’s office, then took the podium to present proclamations: one from the governor of Romero’s home state, one from the lieutenant governor—the cousin of the presenter, Carroll Angelle.
And it was at this point that, after having deferred all morning to California cool, the Cajuns took over.
Speaking at first haltingly about the proclamations, Angelle paused, looked up, and said, “Look, I gotta say something about this kid. I think Cricket [Romero’s wife] deserves to be in the HOF! To hell with these proclamations!”
Angelle used to own a restaurant across from Evangeline Downs, one of the tracks at which Romero started riding. He saw Randy come in one day with a young blond.
“’Who are you babysitting?’ I asked him,” recalled Angelle. “She was 15 that year. The next year, she was Mrs. Randy Romero.”
The Californians had strength in numbers, but it was Romero who was the sentimental favorite, the people’s choice, in this year’s Hall of Fame class. After seven fruitless appearances on the ballot, this year, to paraphrase Ms. Perry, Romero’s candidacy was undeniable, his induction unforgettable.
Hello Race Fans! has created a series of video playlists for this year’s Hall of Fame inductees and their races.