Call of the Hall

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Monday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony hit a sweet chord all around. The participants were funny, sentimental and gracious, and never failed to forget what brought them all together on a summer morning in Saratoga Springs – the horses.

Dr. Dean Richardson, who rose to national prominence for his dedicated, and at times emotionally wrenching, work to save the life of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, served as the keynote speaker.

The chief of large-animal surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, Richardson, warmed up the packed house at Fasig-Tipton’s sales pavilion during a 15-minute speech. Richardson described himself as a wannabe actor who didn’t cut it on the stage or in modern-dance class but discovered his passion for horses somewhat later in life.

“To show you how geeky I was, I joined the pony club at the age of 18,” Richardson told the crowd, who erupted in laughter. “When you join the pony club at 18, you have to have a certain level of self-confidence.”

Self-confidence is what brought trainer Carl Nafzger and jockey Edgar Prado to the stage to accept their plaques and their rightful places in the Hall of Fame. And let’s not forget jockey Milo Valenzuela, who was not well enough to attend the Saratoga ceremony but was seen on screen at his very own induction celebration held at Santa Anita Park in June, highlights of which were shown to those in attendance Monday.

Nafzger, who was joined at the ceremony by a large group of friends and family, including his wife of 40 years, Wanda, was introduced by longtime owner James Tafel. Nafzger, now 66, trained Street Sense, Tafel’s 2007 Kentucky Derby and Travers winner.

“You know what has been the best about the owners; they liked me when I had loafers on,” Nafzger said. “And then I got wing-tipped shoes, and everyone asked me, ‘Carl, you got wing-tip shoes now, you’re going to go big now. You’re going to become a big stable.’ I said, ‘No. I think I will stay with the people who liked me when I had loafers.’ And believe it or not, the wing-tip shoes went away, and the loafers came back.”

Nafzger spoke of warmly of the late Frances Genter, for whom he trained 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled. In a Hallmark-worthy scene captured on national television, Nafzger told Mrs. Genter, who at age 92 had failing eyesight, “He’s taking the lead. He’s gonna win. He’s gonna win. He’s gonna win. He’s a winner! He’s a winner! He’s a winner, Mrs. Genter! You’ve won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter! I love you.”

Nafzger recalled the touching moment Monday morning.

“When you think of the owners I had, you have to think of Mrs. Genter,” Nafzger said. “She was everybody’s mother or grandmother. She was everything you’ve seen on TV that day. That was Mrs. Genter. There was not one thing that was any different than what you’ve seen on TV.”

With a Peruvian flag hoisted by a fan in the balcony, and a standing ovation that lasted longer than most races he rides, gentleman jock Edgar Prado accepted his plaque from trainer Bob Klesaris, who was instrumental in launching Prado’s career in the United States in the mid-1980s.

Klesaris recalled meeting Prado, who told the trainer, “Just give me a chance and I will prove you right.”

Klesaris noted that while Prado and he clicked with many winners at Suffolk Downs, there was one problem.

“Not a 30-day period went by that he didn’t get suspended (for riding infractions),” he recalled. “I’m constantly in the stewards’ office battling for him. I’m going to bat for him to no avail. I had a steward pull me aside outside the office and say, ‘Bobby, listen, believe me when I tell you, I have 40 years experience, this kid isn’t going to make it.’”

Prado, 41, clearly proved that official wrong. He enters the Hall of Fame with more than 6,000th wins, including the 2006 Kentucky Derby aboard Barbaro.

In his acceptance speech, Prado paid tribute to the horse he loved so much.

“To my friend, Barbaro, who is in my heart forever – I miss you my friend,” Prado said.

One of Prado’s first memories of racing is when he was 8, growing up in his native Peru.

“My father was the groom, my brother was the rider and I was the hotwalker,” he recalled. “Since then, horse racing has been my love and my life.”

Valenzuela, 73, was there in spirit Monday, with his children Diana and John speaking on behalf of their father, who received his plaque at a June 22 ceremony attended by more than 300 people at Santa Anita Park.

Valenzuela rode for 29 years, and was best known for his work with the mighty Kelso, a five-time Horse of the Year. The rider and gelding were a team in 35 races, and made it to the winner’s circle in 22 of those races, including 19 stakes.

John Valenzuela believes it wasn’t just his father’s talent as a rider that got him into the Hall of Fame.

“He is a man of very few words, but a man with a big heart,” he said. “That is why I think he is here.”

The equines recognized as Hall of Fame inductees were Ancient Title, Inside Information and Manila.

Ancient Title, a winner of 24 races, 20 of them stakes, did his best work on the West Coast, but Saratoga did figure on his radar in 1975 when he won the Whitney Handicap. Owned and bred by William and Ethel Kirkland, Ancient Title represented the fruits and labor of a small breeding operation. The Kirkland’s granddaughter, Lynn Russell Meyers, paid tribute to them as well as Ancient Title’s trainer, Keith Stucki.

“There were just a few horses in the stable,” Meyers said. “When my grandparents were elderly and could not keep up with the racing scene anymore, they were going to close the stable. But Keith (Stucki) said, ‘I think you should hold on to this one horse.’ And it was Ancient Title.”

No one in attendance at the 1995 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park will forget Inside Information’s 13 1/2-length romping win in the Distaff. Her margin of victory remains the largest of any Breeders’ Cup race. The stalwart filly won 14 of 17 starts for trainer Shug McGaughey and owner Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps. Inside Information became the ninth horse bred or owned by the Phipps family to gain induction into the Hall of fame.

McGaughey, himself Hall of Famer since 2004, presented Phipps with Inside Information’s plaque.

“Inside Information was a very special horse,” McGaughey said. “I think her career statistics make a pretty convincing case for her induction.”

Manila’s owner, Michael Shannon, drew laughs when he discussed the many times (10) his turf superstar was overlooked by Hall of Fame voters. Manila won or placed in 17 of 18 starts, including a victory as a 3-year-old in the 1986 Breeders Cup Turf, against an incredibly deep field. That win earned him the respect of Eclipse Award voters, and he was named champion turf male.

Manila’s trainer, Leroy Jolley, presented the plaque to Shannon.

“Every reporter that has called me, the first question they ask is, ‘How does it feel to finally get into the Hall of Fame with Manila after you’ve been turned down 10 times?’ My answer to that is that it is a lot better than being turned down 11 times,” Shannon said. “Who should be in the Hall of Fame of persistence is whoever nominated him 11 times. So whoever Mr. Nominator is, this Bud is for you.”