Justify should be Horse of the Year.
Accelerate should be Horse of the Year.
Justify should be Horse of the Year because since 1936 no Triple Crown winner has ever not been Horse of the Year.
Accelerate should be Horse of the Year because since 1950 (Noor was robbed!) no older horse with a similarly stellar record has ever not been Horse of the Year.
Eclipse Awards ballots go out this week to some 270 voters. They will have their toughest task sorting out the ultimate honor since the Great Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta Debate of 2009, and before that the 1984 war of worlds between John Henry and Slew o’ Gold.
In each of those elections there were some very fine people on both sides. Neither choice, however, was colored by the spectre of a Triple Crown winner. The Triple Crown, goes the common wisdom, trumps all other considerations.
Accelerate’s challenge to the norm is based on a record this year of six wins and a second in seven starts. His six wins included the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup at Santa Anita, Pacific Classic, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, all at a mile and one-quarter on dirt. His narrow loss in the nine-furlong Oaklawn Handicap was to City of Light, who ended his season with a powerful win in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
All well and good, but winning the Triple Crown, as Justify did to conclude a career of six starts and six wins, carries with it an almost bulletproof validation. Triple Crown winners – no matter how fast they run or who they face – immediately find themselves in a club so exclusive that anything else happening in the year of their accomplishment tends to quietly melt away.
Does anyone readily recall that in 1937 Seabiscuit won 11 of 15 starts at 10 different tracks, carried 130 pounds to victory three times, and led the nation in earnings? Nope, not really, because War Admiral won the Triple Crown and was Horse of the Year.
Armed did everything you could ask of an older Thoroughbred in 1946 when he ran 18 times, won 11 races – six of them under 130 pounds – and finished out of the money only once in a campaign that marched from late January to mid-September. Horse of the Year Assault lost seven of 15 starts, but three of his victories made up the Triple Crown, so that was that.
And even though his post-Triple Crown form was pockmarked by a DQ in the Travers and a slipped saddle in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Affirmed was hailed as 1978 Horse of the Year in the face of Seattle Slew, who beat Affirmed twice, and Exceller, winner of six Grade 1 races on turf and dirt.
So good luck to Accelerate. It’s a steep hill to climb.
Accelerate, who remains in training for the Pegasus World Cup in January, has had a season that stacks up with such recent older Horses of the Year as Invasor (2006), Saint Liam (2005), and Mineshaft (2003). He ran more often – though not as fast – as did Ghostzapper in 2004. And, minus a trip to the Dubai World Cup, he did at least as much at home as Curlin (2008), California Chrome (2016), and Gun Runner (2017).
None of those older champions had a Triple Crown winner to contend with for year-end honors, however, which means the only reason not to vote for Accelerate as Horse of the Year is Justify.
Let’s be clear. No one needs to explain a vote for Justify. For all its dips and dives, history appears to be on his side. In order to vote for Accelerate, there needs to be a hole poked in the argument that winning the Triple Crown is an automatic ticket to Horse of the Year. Where to begin?
Ah, yes – the Curse of Apollo, a media creation woven into Kentucky Derby lore with neither context nor conscience. True enough, until Justify came along no horse since 1882 had won the Derby without at least one race at 2. “That’s mildly interesting” should have been the reaction when the trend was first noticed and then perennially flogged, because throughout racing history the best Derby-bound horses usually were raced early and often as 2-year-olds. If they weren’t, they weren’t much.
Anyway, Derby winners Tim Tam, Big Brown, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Lucky Debonair ran once as 2-year-olds, one being not that far from zero. Always Dreaming and Monarchos ran twice. A whole bunch of Derby winners ran just three times at 2, including Regret and American Pharoah, who won their Derbies 100 years apart.
(Not for nothing, Carry Back, the 1961 Derby winner, ran 21 times at 2, while Donau, the 1911 Derby winner, started 41 times as a 2-year-old. If there was pattern, I missed it.)
Justify was ready to run late in 2017, but Bob Baffert was inclined to wait for the Santa Anita meet to commence. His crew dealt with a minor problem, after which Justify was produced in February. The colt is rightfully praised for his six-race career stuffed into a 111-day burst that began with maiden and allowance race scores and a win in the Santa Anita Derby that he desperately needed to be eligible for the Kentucky Derby. The Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes followed in a white-faced chestnut blur as Justify took his place as the 13th winner of the Triple Crown.
And yet, of the other dozen, none did less than Justify. Each of them – including the pre-War Admiral era winners Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, and Omaha – accomplished something significant other than win the Triple Crown, either as 2-year-olds to set the stage or as 3-year-olds after the buzz of their Belmont faded away. Sometimes both.
Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and American Pharoah all were precocious enough to be 2-year-old champions.
War Admiral, a solid stakes-winner at 2, was 3 for 3 after his Belmont, with victories over older horses in the Washington Handicap and Pimlico Special rounding out an unbeaten 3-year-old campaign.
Whirlaway, who made 16 starts as 2 and won the Hopeful, ran nine times in 1941 after winning the Triple Crown, knocking off the Travers, Dwyer, American Derby, and Lawrence Realization.
Assault, also a stakes-winner at 2, did his Triple Crown proud as 1946 closed by defeating Stymie in the Pimlico Special and Lucky Draw in the Westchester Handicap. Neither of those accomplished 5-year-olds got close.
Citation went on to win five stakes against older horses before the end of his 1948 Triple Crown season. Secretariat defeated older horses with record performances on dirt and turf to flesh out his towering 1973 Triple Crown. And you couldn’t have asked American Pharoah to do more than win the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic to bookend his Triple Crown achievement, although it would have been fun to find out what he could have done in 2016.
As long as the fantasy lamp is lit, it would have been fun to find out what Justify could have done in September, October, or November of this year. But he was retired with a minor injury that could have been solved and a value that had soared to $75 million. Deprived of a chance to savor his maturity, fans have been assured by the business end of the stick that Justify will reproduce himself at stud.
The vote for Horse of the Year is always subjective. There are no rules. Are voters rewarding the horse for posterity’s sake? Or the owners, who take the bows and cash the checks while the champ munches hay? If ever there was an opportunity to lodge a protest vote against the early retirement of a 3-year-old star, the time would seem ripe.
Accelerate, on the other hand, has been an evolving taste: good at 3, better at 4, and exemplary at 5, when he did what the best older Thoroughbreds are supposed to do. His slow boil to a year-long feast in 2018 looks downright quaint alongside the white-hot burst of excitement from Justify.
If it speaks at all, history seems to suggest that added value helps to confirm the Horse of the Year worthiness of a Triple Crown winner. Justify will test that idea. Odds are, though, that the modern game makes a six-race career acceptable when it reaches certain heights. Justify’s 111 days in the barrel have been extolled as unique beyond reproach, a true champion for the rapid turnover of the millennial age. Winning the Triple Crown – and only winning the Triple Crown – could be enough to be Horse of the Year.
Then again, for those voters who feel the Triple Crown should be its own reward and Horse of the Year means something else, Accelerate provides a rare and honest alternative, with a 2018 record capping a fulsome career that stands at 972 days … and still counting.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
Visit DRF.com for additional news, notes, wagering information, and more.