Class in Session

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Class.

The Hall of Fame induction ceremony – no matter who gets inducted or how long the speeches last – is about class.

The class of the past inductees showing up every year. They wear their blazers, come to the front of the room, get saluted once more.

The class of the connections made over the eras. Allen Jerkens went into the Hall in 1975 and he was there Friday, part of the honoree lineup. Ron Turcotte rode all-time greats Northern Dancer and Secretariat and there he was again, proud of his career once again. Chris McCarron, Kent Desormeaux and Edgar Prado each rocketed through their apprentice years back in Maryland – and sat in the same row Friday. Angel Cordero, still the king of Saratoga all these years later, received the loudest response – until Jerkens. “Chiiieeef” rumbled through the audience as he stood up.

The class of jobs well done. Trainers Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Shug McGaughey, Wayne Lukas, Jerkens, Janet Elliot finished work at the barn, cleaned up and came to the ceremony as Hall of Famers and fans like the rest of us.

The class of the presenters. Friday, David Willmot and Todd Pletcher introduced Roger Attfield and John Velazquez, respectively, with grace and aplomb. Tom Durkin steered the ship, the only emcee who also holds sport coats.

The class of the venue. Now a few years in, Fasig-Tipton’s renovated sales pavilion sparkles for a full house of Hall of Famers, officials, fans.

The class of inviting the public. I’ve never been to any other sport’s Hall of Fame induction and I’m sure they’re similar but the open door to racing’s fans – from children to that guy with the disposable camera – to come along for the ride should never change.

The class of the presentation. Keeneland’s G.D. Hieronymus puts together the video clips every year and they were again stellar – mixing the history of Civil War era horse Planet and jockey Anthony Hamilton with the sheer brilliance of Ghostzapper, the unduplicated success of Attfield, the old-school horsemanship of Robert Wheeler. And how about the mustache Velazquez sported back in the day?

The class of real history. Hamilton and Planet starred in the 1800s, a time of great unrest and uncertainty. I’m floored we know anything about them at all.

The class of the recipients. Humans truly humbled make for great theater.

Attfield was smooth, told a great joke (in the version I heard the jockey yells “Alley Oop” at the fences) and paid proper tribute to the animals and the people who made his career happen. He also gave a miniature state of the sport address, telling racing to “get rid of the rubbish.” Put the Hall of Famer on the list of potential keynote speakers.

Leaning on a cane, Sarah Wright, great-granddaughter of Planet’s owner Maj. Thomas Doswell, sported an orange top in honor of her her family’s Bullfield Stable’s racing silks, proudly spoke of the horse they called “The Great Red Fox.” Planet’s picture hung in the front hall. Now his plaque hangs in The Hall.

Wheeler’s grandson Jeff mentioned how proud his family was of “Gramps,” who passed away in 1992.

The class of the horse. Elfrida Stronach, wife of owner/breeder Frank, thanked the Hall for Ghostzapper’s honor – then brought up how much the stallion enjoys eating carrots at the farm.

And then there was Velazquez.

If there’s one thing he can do other than ride a horse, it’s talk. Ask him about a horse or a race and be prepared to keep up. Years ago, I talked to him about Ashado and off he went, comparing her to Serena Williams while sitting outside the jocks’ room at Saratoga. He clucked, he chirped, he clapped his hands, he pointed, he walked around, he rolled his eyes and he kept talking. My recorder nearly gave out. Friday, the Hall of Fame moment left him speechless. A life, a career came to a point right there in the sales pavilion and Velazquez couldn’t hold it. He put down his notes, took a loooong pause, crossed his arms, inhaled deeply, stepped away from the podium. The crowd brought him back, with a settling wave of powerful applause. His wife, Leona, joined him at the podium, steadying her man. He talked about his mother, his father, his wife, his children, a long list of people who influenced his life – now fellow Hall of Famer Angel Cordero, Ralph Theroux Sr., Pletcher, Cordero’s late wife Marjorie, John Hertler, Zito, Mickey Preger, father-in-law Leo O’Brien, John DeStefano and on and on and on.

Now that was class.