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HALL HOPEFULS HAVE H.H. ON THEIR SIDE

The Happy Handicapper is going to help make horse racing history this week, even if he doesn't hit the $1 million Pick Six at Santa Anita.

This week, he will have a tiny say on which horses and people will get into thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs in August.

Somehow, probably through a clerical oversight, the hall invited the H.H. to vote for the Class of 2005. He considers it a great honor to join the 163-voter panel. But it also is a head-scratching challenge. Choosing among the star-studded candidates is almost as difficult as picking the winner of a Breeders' Cup race.

The hall's nominating committee presented him with five candidates in each of four categories -- trainer, jockey, female horse and male horse. All have impressive resumes, but some come with vivid memories attached.

Nick Zito's name jumps off the trainers page, and not just because one morning he let the H.H. into the stall to pet "Striky" (1991 Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold) on the nose.

Zito is the only nominated trainer who has won every Triple Crown race. He took the Derby twice (Strike the Gold and Go for Gin, 1994) and then notched the Preakness (Louis Quatorze, 1996) and the Belmont Stakes (Birdstone, 2004). He's won about 1,400 races and more than $65 million in purses.

But Zito -- whose favorite saying is "this game will humble kings" -- has yet to train a Hall of Fame horse. In that department, he's trumped by nominee John Veitch, whose claim to fame is he trained two of Calumet Farm's great Hall of Famers -- Davona Dale and Alydar.

The H.H. still remembers the 1979 afternoon at Pimlico when he watched a man empty a briefcase and push $40,000 in cash across the counter to bet on Davona Dale in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. And he still thinks Alydar -- runner-up to Affirmed in all three 1978 races -- was the best 3-year-old never to win the Triple Crown.

The H.H. has always had a soft spot for Craig Perret, a jockey nominee, ever since the New Orleans native convinced him to pick Bet Twice in the 1987 Derby. ("He's ready to explode," Perret said.) The colt finished second to Alysheba but went on to romp in the Belmont.

Perret finished last year with 4,351 wins, almost $110 million in purse money, four Breeders' Cup wins and, probably most memorably, the 1990 Derby victory on Unbridled. (Remember trainer Carl Nafzger jumping for joy with the elderly owner on national TV?)

Perret is also the only one of the nominees to have raced at Fort Erie, although not with great success. In 1992, he was roundly booed after getting beat on heavily favored Alydeed in the Prince of Wales Stakes. But he bounced back to win the big race in 1994 on Bruce's Mill.

Perret also will be remembered for the suspension that caused him to lose his mount on Peteski, who won the 1993 Prince of Wales en route to the Canadian Triple Crown.

The H.H. asked the question that got Perret in hot water after winning the Queen's Plate. The question involved Peteski's improvement after running second as the heavy favorite two weeks earlier in the Plate Trial. Perret's answer seemed to indicate he thought he could have won the Trial, if he'd tried harder.

"I didn't cheat the public. My lips were going one way and my thoughts were going another," Perret said.

The H.H. will always remember Randy Romero, another jockey nominee, for his Breeders' Cup Distaff races in 1988 at Churchill Downs. Romero rallied Personal Ensign from far back to nip Derby winner Winning Colors at the wire. Seeing it was worth the 10-hour drive to Louisville.

Silver Charm, who earned $6.9 million and came within 50 yards of the 1997 Triple Crown, was one of the grittiest horses the H.H. has seen.

Remember, he won the Derby and Preakness each by a head. As Baffert put it, "He likes to grind it out, fight it out. He doesn't like horses to go by him."

The H.H.'s most vivid memory came the morning of the Preakness when he overheard Baffert telling jockey Gary Stevens, "Don't worry, this horse is ready."

Too bad the H.H. had already predicted Silver Charm would be second.

This time, he'll get it right.

e-mail: rsummers@buffnews.com