SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- A standing-room only crowd at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Friday at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga Springs reserved its longest and loudest applause for the last inductee, the rider Randy Romero, whose career was equally marked by exhilarating highs and debilitating lows.
Accepting his introduction from Ken Dunn, the longtime general manager of Calder Race Course who called Romero "the Charlie Hustle" of racing, Romero thanked his wife, family, friends, agents, owners, and trainers for a career that included 4,294 wins -- and 20 major surgeries for broken bones and other injuries. In recent years, Romero has been treated for chronic liver and kidney disease, and he regularly undergoes dialysis treatments.
"This is a dream come true," Romero said, in a thick Louisiana accent. "I've finally, finally made it."
Romero was inducted along with Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year; Point Given, the 2001 Horse of the Year; and Best Pal, the popular stakes-winning gelding who remains the leading California-bred earner of all time. In addition, Harry Bassett, winner of the 1871 Belmont and Travers Stakes; Michael "Buster" Millerick, the cantankerous and successful trainer of Native Diver; and Don Pierce, a jockey who amassed 3,546 wins over a three-decade career, were enshrined on Friday after their elections by the Hall of Fame's historical review committee.
With the exception of Harry Bassett and Romero, every inductee this year was based in California, making for an induction program that leaned heavily to the left coast. Even the keynote speaker, Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens, rode primarily in California, and like most famous Californians, had a supporting role in a major Hollywood movie, the 2003 film "Seabiscuit."
Romero was followed on the program by an undeclared speaker, Carroll Angelle, a representative of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindall. Angelle said that he had been sent to deliver two proclamations to Romero, but after reading a few lines on the documents, he pushed them aside.
"Look, I got to say something about this here Cajun," Angelle, the cousin of the state's lieutenant governor, said. "To hell with these presentations."
Angelle then went on to tell several colorful anecdotes about Romero, whom he has known since 1979. He concluded his speech with a reference to the co-star of "Seabiscuit."
"Hollywood has Tobey Maguire, but in Louisiana, we got Randy Romero," Angelle said.
Of all the speeches delivered by the California connections at Friday's ceremony, the most touching was the one delivered by Larry Mabee, the son of the late John and Betty Mabee, who bred and owned Best Pal. The Mabees owned Golden Eagle Farm and were one of the most widely admired couples in the history of California racing.
"The only thing we're missing is my mom and dad," Larry Mabee said. "They would be so proud to have this event happen and to be here. They loved their horses." Mabee's short speech overflowed with genuine emotion for his parents and for Best Pal, whom he called a "great big ugly tough son of a gun."
The connections of Point Given also gave presentations that were tinged with regret, for both the 2002 death of the colt's owner, Prince Ahmed Salman, and the overwhelming belief that the horse could have won the Triple Crown if not for a Kentucky Derby trip that continues to be dissected nine years later. Ridden by Stevens, Point Given finished fifth in the Derby before winning both the Preakness and Belmont in dominating performances.
Terrence Collier, a Fasig-Tipton auctioneer who consulted for Salman's Thoroughbred Corp., said during his speech that Stevens "cannot and should not shoulder the blame" for the Derby loss. In the audience, Stevens stared glassy-eyed at Collier; earlier this year, Stevens broke down on an NBC broadcast when visiting Point Given at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky and talking about his Derby ride on the horse.
Bob Baffert, Point Given's trainer, said that he believed that the colt represented his "best chance" to saddle a Derby winner. In 2001, Baffert had already won the Derby twice, with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.
"If I had one race to take back, I think it would be the 2001 Kentucky Derby," Baffert said.
Unlike all the other inductees, Azeri was elected into the Hall on her first ballot, on the strength of a record of 17 wins from 24 starts and four Eclipse Awards during a four-year racing career that did not start until deep into her 3-year-old year. Along the way, she won nearly $4.1 million, a record at the time she retired, but one that has been surpassed by the undefeated Zenyatta.
Michael Paulson, the son of Azeri's late breeder, Allen Paulson, accepted the award. Paulson closed his speech by referring to a race call by Vic Stauffer at Hollywood Park when Azeri won the 2003 Milady Handicap. During the call, Stauffer said, "The speed of Ruffian, the class of Lady's Secret, the heart of Personal Ensign, one of the greatest of all time, this is Azeri."
"If you weren't there, it sent chills up your spine," Paulson said.
Pierce, who has a deep and entertaining reservoir of stories about his racing career, did not take more than 90 seconds to make his acceptance speech, one which required a lengthy pause at the start so that he could compose himself enough to talk. After the speech, Pierce looked at Baffert in the crowd and drew two spread fingers from his eyes down his cheeks. Baffert was inducted last year.
"Bob Baffert cried," Pierce said, without a microphone. "I didn't."