Friday morning, Thoroughbred racing celebrated the best the sport has to offer when this year’s Racing Hall of Fame class was inducted in front of a packed house at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion.
Scheduled keynote speaker Steven Crist had to cancel due to the death of his mother, film critic Judith Crist, but the presenters and inductees offered an affirmative view on a sport that has recently been plagued by bad news and bad press.
As Tom Durkin, the master of ceremonies and Saratoga Race Course announcer put it, induction into the Hall of Fame does not honor a single achievement, or a single great year. It honors, he said, “the measure of a career, of a competitive lifetime,” and this year’s inductees exemplify that standard.
Ghostzapper, trainers Robert Wheeler and Roger Attfield, and jockey John Velazquez are the 2012 contemporary inductees; Planet and jockey Anthony Hamilton are this year’s historic inductees.
Born in 1855, Planet raced until he was six years old, winning 27 of his 31 starts and finishing second in the other four. Racing at a variety of tracks and distances, he was considered second only to Lexington among elite runners before the Civil War.
Hamilton was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1866; during his riding career he won some of New York’s most prestigious races, including the Brooklyn, Suburban, and Metropolitan Handicaps and the Futurity. Presenter Brien Bouyea noted that Hamilton is the third African-American jockey inducted into the Hall of Fame in the last eight years; prior to that, only one, Isaac Murphy was honored. “We’re still,” said Bouyea, “catching up on history that dates back before the Civil War.”
The winner of eight Sovereign Awards for Outstanding Canadian Trainer and trainer of three Canadian Triple Crown winners, Attfield spoke humbly about those who had contributed to his success.
“The only thing that makes it possible for someone like myself to be here,” he said, “are all the people who have worked along with me for years,” going on to list exercise riders, hotwalkers, grooms, assistant trainers, veterinarians, jockeys, and blacksmiths before adding owners and horses to the list of those who had made his achievements possible.
Attfield alluded pointedly to the bad news that has so frequently been in the press recently. “I’m kind of sad about what’s happening in racing today and all the bad publicity we’re getting,” he said. “We have to clean up some of the stuff that’s going on out there and get rid the rubbish. I feel really, really strongly about that,” adding, “I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the people and all the foundations that are helping to find homes for retired racehorses.”
While Attfield and the other inductees were warmly received, it was the New York-based Velazquez who unsurprisingly got the most enthusiastic response from those assembled, a response that caused the Eclipse Award-winning jockey to pause several times while he composed himself. Unable to speak, he was joined at the podium by his wife Leona as he talked about the support of his mother and the loss of his father.
“With Johnny’s induction today,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, for whom Velazquez has ridden hundreds of winners, “the bar has been raised. We all know what a terrific rider he is, but more importantly than that, he’s a terrific role model, a terrific husband, and a caring father.”
Velazquez has won five Saratoga riding titles, and a total of 22 titles at New York tracks; from 2001 to 2004, he led the nation in wins. Despite not riding full-time yet at Saratoga this summer following a recent injury, Velazquez is tied for fifth in wins at this year’s meet with 14.
On Monday, Velazquez and Attfield teamed up to win the Waya with Kissable, a fitting way to begin the week that would end with their taking their places among racing’s greats.