Santa Calls

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How often do you make phone calls you want to make? How many times do you dial your cell phone and think, ‘I’m going to make a man’s life with this phone call.’ Have you ever?

For Mike Kane, it’s one day a year.

That’s when Kane, communications officer for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, calls the newest Hall of Fame inductees. First, it’s to tell them the news and second, it’s to start organizing the Hall of Fame ceremonies in August.

“Clearly, it’s the high point of the whole thing,” Kane said. “You feel like Santa Claus, Sometimes, nothing’s said, you can feel the emotion on the other end of the line. I’ve had people overcome by emotion, weeping.”

Some are easy to find. This year, he called trainer Carl Nafzger, got him on one ring and told him the news. He didn’t cry. Edgar Prado, that was a snap, called the jocks’ room at Keeneland and told him he’s inducted but not to tell anyone (the official announcement comes days later). Anna Shannon, who owned Manila with her husband, Mike, picked up the phone but didn’t believe Kane after being disappointed for so many years when Manila’s name hit the ballot and then the floor. Reaching Dinny Phipps for Inside Information, that was easy too, just a phone call.

Then there were Milo Valenzuela and Ancient Title.

Valenzuela rode five-time champion Kelso in the ’60s, won 19 stakes aboard the handicap icon, but had been denied the Hall of Fame until finally, through the Historic Review Committee, he made the cut. His daughter Diana answered Kane’s call for her 73-year-old dad.

“Calling Diana Valenzuela and telling her that her father Milo Valenzuela had been elected, that was probably the most fun,” Kane said. “I’ve never met her but she had been a big advocate for her dad. He’s in bad health, she really wanted it to happen while he’s still alive. To call her and tell her, I felt good about that. I don’t know any of these people but I felt like she was doing it for the right reasons.”

Unable to travel to Saratoga, Valenzuela had the first Hall of Fame Road Show. For the first time, the Hall of Fame went on a traveling tour to present Valenzuela with his award. More than 300 people showed up at the ceremony at Santa Anita this summer.

At least Kane was able to find Valenzuela.

A former sportswriter, Kane knows how to hunt down a lead. He had to bloodhound down the connections of Ancient Title, a California-bred gelding who was bred and owned by the late William and Ethel Kirkland. Kane found trainer Keith Stucki and told him the news. Stucki didn’t know how to find the Kirklands and at 88 wasn’t able to travel to the accept the award. Kane and the Hall of Fame decided to get turf writer Jay Hovdey to accept the award for Ancient Title. Hovdey, a member of the nominating committee for the Hall of Fame, had been an advocate of the 24-time winner.

“I was at the Preakness and I got a call from Keith’s daughter,” Kane said. “It turns out Lynn Meyers and her husband, Don Meyers – she’s the granddaughter of the Kirklands – had read about Ancient Title being elected and contacted Keith, sent him a birthday card. They didn’t know he was alive, congratulated him, and she had their number so I was able to contact them.”

From Montague, Calif., Lynn and Don Meyers had planned a driving trip to Minnesota at the same time of the induction so they’ll be flying in for the weekend. For Kane, it’s a job well done. He made the call, made somebody’s day (or life) and managed to get a family to reconnect to a sport that was once in their blood.

Dick Hamilton made the Hall of Fame calls for about 10 years. He retired last year, passing the phone Kane. One of his first calls was to the family of trainer Henry Forrest, who was elected last year by the Historic Review Committee.

“Henry Forrest has been dead since the 1970s, I was trying to find his children to tell them. I called the Derby museum, who told me about a journalist who had a number for these folks in Tennessee . . . ”

“Are you Henry Forrest’s daughter?”

“Yes I am.”

“This is Mike Kane from the Racing Museum, I’m calling to tell you your dad has been elected to the Hall of Fame.”

“This is better than Christmas.”