Hall Pass

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Every year, it happens. I slide into the Hall of Fame induction late after another frenzied pre-sales, pre-Whitney morning at the track. Every year, I nestle in the balcony, usually a corner, always standing. I realize I should have showered, should have shaved, should have put on a coat and tie, at least a button-down dress shirt. But there wasn’t time. There is never time.

Every year, I almost skip it. Almost succumb to the pressure of a daily newspaper, the pressure of life. And then as it ticks closer, I shut my laptop, put on a hat, grab a pen and notepad and slide in the side door, up the steps for my annual dose of greatness.

I go to listen to a few stories, glimpse a few faces, catch a few gestures, see which Hall of Famers made it back for another year and which ones are sadly gone. And, sure, I wonder about my own career, thinking about the bad rides, the missed opportunities, the choice to retire instead of persevere and the day I sold Good Night Shirt. I guess it’s cathartic, torturous, too. Doesn’t every person who owned a horse, trained a horse or rode a race wonder about what might have been? Wonder why some make it and some don’t. Wonder where you went wrong.

Sure, the ceremony can tick slower than a slow date, it’s the nature of the award’s ceremony, whether it’s a Little League banquet or the Hall of Fame but I don’t remember the long, dull speeches (other than Skip Away’s year, whew, that was brutal).

Since 1989, when it was in a tent behind the Hall of Fame, I’ve seen most of them.

There was the year Leona Velazquez walked on stage and put her arm around her husband, Johnny, just to give him the strength to overcome the moment. He gathered his composure like he does at the top of the stretch on the turf and finished with poise and polish.

There was the year Chris McCarron thanked the gate crew, the pony boys, the valets, the grooms, the hotwalkers and every unsung cog in this crazy wheel we call racing. He was crying before he lowered the microphone.

There was the year Bill Nack delivered the keynote speech. He recited each and every Kentucky Derby winner and talked about the clarity of the finish line. I was proud to be a turf writer that day. Inspired, I wrote hard into the night that year.

There was the year they held up a sign for Bud Delp, “G.G. “Bud” Delp. Best Trainer to Ever Look Through Glasses.” Uncle Bob and Aunt Shirley made the sign.

There was the year Mike Smith thanked every horse, every trainer, walked off the stage and then asked for a mulligan, running back to the podium and thanking Shug McGaughey. Smith could pull a gas can out of a fire.

There was the year King T. Leatherbury told jokes. The jokes were funny but felt out of place, we would rather have heard him talk about the honor, but that was never his style.

There was the year Ramon Dominguez conjured up memories of his brilliance in the saddle and the fleeting nature of this unforgiving game.

And there was the year Chris Antley got inducted. And, Garrett Gomez, too. Oh, the fleeting nature of this unforgiving life. Brilliance and fragility. A reality check. We all cried those days.

Friday, I double stepped up the back steps and found a spot in the corner, moving a cardboard box and drifting away, listening to the accolades and the lessons of the pillars of the turf. Will Farish, Richard Duchossois, Ted Bassett accepted their awards. Giants. Humble giants. It was a nice way to thank them.

In between and after 12 pillars of the turf, My Juliet, Waya, Royal Delta and Craig Perret found their rightful spot in the sport’s shrine.

Tony Black, accepting for My Juliet, pulled the portable microphone from the podium and delivered a verbal version of yesterday’s column with a jockey’s naturel sense of timing nailing it on the wire.

Craig Perret, the humble, patient, soft-handed jockey who had waited far too long delivered a speech like his rides aboard Safely Kept, Rhythm, Unbridled and all the others. Nerves of steel as a jockey, he’s still got them. It was like listening to an old friend at a backyard picnic.

Hours after the Hall of Fame ceremony and hours before I sat down to type out the last page of today’s paper, Tom Law and I walked to the track for the Hall of Fame Stakes, the Alydar and the Saratoga Oaks. We were both frazzled, it’s the simple nature of the Friday before sales week as stakes and stories come at you like arrows over a moat.

“Craig Perret was great today,” I said. “And Tony Black, man, he nailed it.”

“You went to the Hall of Fame?” Law asked. “No wonder you’re in the weeds today.”

Yeah, tall, beautiful, Hall of Fame weeds.