Bob Costas of NBC Sports is a 19-time Emmy Award winner who covers the Kentucky Derby for the network. His real passion is baseball.  Costas was one of the earliest critics of steroids in Major League Baseball. Recently, he has been speaking out about whether players who have been steroid users should be elected to The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.  The same question can be asked about racehorse athletes that raced mostly or entirely with the assistance of medication and who are plausible candidates for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame can come about in two ways–by vote of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America or by vote of the Veterans Committee. The latter group deals with players who have been out of the game for at least 21 years.

The criteria for selection are specified in a sentence: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose unquestionably meet the performance criteria but are not even allowed on the ballot because of integrity and character issues, albeit some players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame were pretty unsavory characters. The standards seem to be flexible and open to interpretation.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be absolute locks for election were it not for the steroid accusations surrounding them and Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez would be strong candidates for admission. Will they get in and should they get in?

Costas says that steroid-aided performances have “distorted the game’s history” and “stained” the sport and “poisoned” the record book. His solution is to let voters decide whether Bonds, Clemens, and others should be elected, rather than to ban them from the ballot, as with Rose for betting on games. However, he suggests that the Hall of Fame acknowledge on the plaques of players from the steroid era that their achievements came under unusual conditions.

This plaque recommendation is virtually certain not to be implemented but, regardless, Costas says that “Knowledgeable people will put a figurative asterisk over the entire (steroid) era (even though) that will be unfair to a lot of players.”

Do the preeminent racehorses of today and the recent past deserve election to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame if they ran most or all of their races with permissible medication of some kind? Phenylbutazone and furosemide are legal in prescribed doses on race days in most jurisdictions in the United States but so were steroids in baseball when some all-time records were set.

Consider the criteria for selection to the Racing Hall of Fame: “The mission of the Official National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame is to honor the achievements of those horses, jockeys, and trainers whose records and reputations have withstood the difficult test of time.” Like baseball, this is a general statement that leaves lots of wiggle room. Would it preclude Dancer’s Image, who won the 1968 Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified after he tested positive for phenylbutazone, which is legal today in Kentucky but was illegal in 1968?

The sad reality is that if medication-aided racing were to be a disqualifier for Hall of Fame selection, there would be a dearth of inductees from the last quarter century. Suppose horses that raced on permitted medication get a pass. What about a Hall of Fame worthy racehorse that was disqualified once for a forbidden drug-should it be eligible?  (To digress, should a trainer with flagrant medication violations be put before the voters?)

As the rules are presently constituted, election to the Hall of Fame is a two-step process. Initially, a candidate must receive the majority of the votes of a 16-person nominating committee to become a finalist. Subsequently, approximately 180 members of a voting panel cast their ballots for all of the nominees. The racehorse with the most votes is elected.

Costas, in my view, has the right approach. Leave it up to the nominating committee and to the voting panel to decide whether a racehorse’s total record of accomplishments is such that the animal is Hall of Fame quality. Under this policy, the equine equivalent of a Pete Rose situation, whereby a would-be candidate is banned from consideration, could not occur. This is essentially the procedure followed by the Hall of Fame now.

It would be highly controversial if the Hall of Fame were to put up a sign stating that performance records from the modern era were achieved with the assistance of medication? This is not likely to happen. Yet, to reiterate what Costas said about the steroid era in baseball, “Knowledgeable people will put a figurative asterisk over the entire era.”

The average person who visits the racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, will not know the difference between a record achieved in 1909, 1959, or 2009. But the informed racing fan will know.

Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Mays, Aaron…the names leap into one’s consciousness when the phrase Hall of Fame is mentioned. Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens also come to mind as probably great players, but players whose records were tainted by chemical use. Costas is dead on correct:  rightly or wrongly, these modern players will forever have a figurative asterisk associated with their names and a plaque in Cooperstown won’t eradicate it.  They dominated the game, but the doubts are indelible.

Regret, Man O’ War, Seabiscuit, Citation, Secretariat…these names echo down through history and epitomize Hall of Famer. On the other hand,  _____, _____, _____, (fill in the blanks)  may be great horses from the contemporary era, but their records are chemically suspect. Fairly or unfairly, these modern racehorses will have a figurative asterisk associated with each of their names and a plaque in the Hall of Fame won’t erase it.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business