LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As night fell on June 9 at Belmont Park, if there was any certainty to racing in 2018, it was that Justify would be Horse of the Year.
Accelerate said hold my Belmont Jewel.
Accelerate polished off the Pacific Classic, Awesome Again, and, on Saturday here at Churchill Downs, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, giving him a record that would unquestionably make him Horse of the Year had there not been a Triple Crown winner this year.
But there was. Justify became the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner only 111 days after making his first start. He won all six of his races, including a win in the Kentucky Derby that made him the first horse to win the Derby without having raced at 2 since 1882.
The choice between those two is one of many difficult decisions facing Eclipse Award voters when ballots go out next month. After the Breeders’ Cup on Saturday, the likely top candidates in all 11 equine divisions have come to the fore. In categories such as Horse of the Year or 2-year-old filly, voters will have to decide between two completely worthy choices. Many divisions – such as 3-year-old male, 3-year-old filly, and older dirt male – are slam dunks. And then there are the categories that offer no satisfying choice, such as for male turf and older dirt female.
Horse of the Year, though, already has generated, and will continue to generate, the most debate. It’s a healthy discussion, as both Justify and Accelerate have major points in their favor.
For Justify, it’s the most obvious – he did something only 12 horses have previously accomplished. Plus, every Triple Crown winner during the Eclipse Award era – Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and American Pharoah – was named Horse of the Year. He entered the sport’s most exclusive club, and he has precedent on his side.
But Justify also came and went quickly, his racing career lasting from mid-February through the Belmont. His was an incredible achievement, to win the Derby off such little foundation, and carry it through the Triple Crown, but it was brief, and he ran all his races against a 3-year-old crop that has looked weaker as the year has progressed.
Accelerate in 2018 raced from Feb. 3 until Nov. 3, winning 6 of 7 starts, with five of those wins coming in Grade 1 races, every one against open company. He won all four of his starts at the classic American dirt distance of 1 1/4 miles. His lone loss was by a neck in the Oaklawn Handicap to City of Light, who showed his quality by winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
However, Accelerate only raced one more time than Justify, and had more time to recover from his races, his schedule not determined by the calendar of the Triple Crown. He also has the weight of history against him, as voters previously have sided with a Triple Crown winner, regardless of the fall campaign, even when there were head-to-head meetings, as with Seattle Slew twice finishing in front of Triple Crown winner Affirmed in 1978.
This all would have been moot if Justify, like American Pharoah, had been able to compete against older horses, like Accelerate, in the Classic. Instead, it boils down to a matter of interpretation by each voter from Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
So who is it, the colt who won the biggest race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, or the horse who won the biggest race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in November?
Both Justify and Accelerate will win at least one Eclipse Award, as both were dominant in their respective divisions, 3-year-old male for Justify, and older dirt male for Accelerate. Similarly, Game Winner should be a unanimous choice for champion 2-year-old male following his win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Monomoy Girl stands out as champion 3-year-old filly after beating elders in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff for her fifth Grade 1 victory of the year.
Then it gets tricky, in at least two cases agonizingly so, for there are two strong candidates for both 2-year-old filly and female turf, but only one can win.
Jaywalk won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and Newspaperofrecord the Juvenile Fillies Turf, both in dominant fashion, both completing stellar campaigns. Either is more than worthy for the Eclipse Award as top 2-year-old filly.
The female turf vote comes down to two Breeders’ Cup winners. Enable is an international superstar, and her victory in the Turf, against males, was one of the highlights of the weekend. But it was her only start in this country. Sistercharlie won the Filly and Mare Turf for her fourth Grade 1 win of the year in a five-start campaign that encompassed racing in the United States from April through November.
Roy H likely secured his second straight male sprint title by capturing the championship race of the year for the division, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, for the second straight year, beating such top candidates as Imperial Hint. But there might be a smattering of support for horses like Mind Your Biscuits – who beat Roy H in their lone head-to-head meeting in the Golden Shaheen – and City of Light, who won the Grade 1 Triple Bend at seven furlongs, was the only horse to beat Accelerate this year, and won the Dirt Mile around one turn, not a sprint, but not a two-turn race, either.
Shamrock Rose won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint against most of the other top contenders for the divisional title and looms the likeliest winner of female sprinter, a category in which there was not one multiple Grade 1 winner. There is bound to be support for the likes of Marley’s Freedom, who was considered the best horse in the division most of the year yet could only manage to finish fourth Saturday.
Older dirt female is confounding, because Abel Tasman was alternately brilliant and dreadful. She won two Grade 1 races, but her last two starts were ugly. Elate only ran twice, including a controversial second to Abel Tasman in the Personal Ensign. Both those two have holes in their résumés, as does the filly voters may take another look at, Unique Bella, who won 3 of 4 starts, including two Grade 1’s, and had a legitimate excuse in her lone loss, but was done by the end of July and never faced anyone of the quality of Abel Tasman or Elate.
No category, though, is more inscrutable than male turf, where the only two-time Grade 1 winner was Heart to Heart, whose last victory came April 13. The best American runners who made it to the end of the year – like Oscar Performance, Robert Bruce, and surface switchers Catholic Boy and Yoshida – all own just one Grade 1 victory on grass. That opens the door for British import Expert Eye, who won the Breeders’ Cup Mile, or perhaps an out-of-the-box choice like Stormy Liberal, who won the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint for the second straight year, swept his last four starts, owns a Grade 1 victory, and produced the highest Beyer Speed Figure of the weekend, a 119.
It’s a year that demands voters give serious thought to some precedent-setting votes.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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