Apparently there’s a debate raging in regard to who should be named Horse of the Year — Justify or Accelerate.
Proponents of the former point to the colt’s undefeated record and Triple Crown sweep, while fans of the latter note his five Grade I wins, including a score in one of the richest races in the world — the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
Look, I hate to be the voice of reason in a horse racing debate — that’s like wearing a three-piece suit to go shopping at Walmart — but this is madness: Justify is Horse of the Year.
End of story.
In the history of organized horse racing, only 13 thoroughbreds have won the Triple Crown, which consists of the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness Stakes (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1), while 18 horses are multiple Grade I winners this year alone (with three more G1 events left to be run in 2018).
In fact, like Accelerate, Monomoy Girl, who will likely be named the nation’s top three-year-old filly, also has five Grade I victories to her credit.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand some of the weeping and gnashing of teeth (well, maybe not the weeping): It is often unclear whether Eclipse awards are given to the best horse or to the most accomplished horse.
I certainly don’t think Azeri was the top horse in training when she was crowned Horse of the Year in 2002. All her wins that year were against females (no offense, ladies) and she beat 46 total rivals in nine starts, including Affluent four times! On the other hand, she visited the winner’s circle after eight of those nine trips to post, including on Oct. 26, following the running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1).
Still, in a year that saw Medaglia d’Oro win or place in seven of nine starts, including the prestigious Travers Stakes (G1), which he annexed by half a length, and War Emblem capture both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness stakes, I think it’s really hard to make the argument that Azeri should have received racing’s top honor. By the way, in her two attempts against the boys (in 2004), Azeri checked in fifth and eighth — the two worst finishes of her career.
I also find it dubious that Arts and Letters was better than Majestic Prince in 1969, given that the latter won seven of eight starts that year, bested the former in two of their three head-to-head matchups (Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes) and was pressured to run in the Belmont (where Arts and Letters bested him) against trainer Johnny Longden’s wishes (both Longden and jockey Bill Hartack claimed Majestic Prince suffered a tendon injury in the Preakness).
Nonetheless, Arts and Letters took home the HOTY hardware despite an 8-5-1 record in 14 starts, thanks to a late-season surge that saw him victorious against older horses in the Met Mile, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Woodward (all Grade I affairs when the grading system went into effect a few years later).
It was another case of accomplishment trumping talent.
On the other hand, few argued when the freakishly fast Ghostzapper was named Horse of the Year in 2004, despite just four total starts and two Grade I wins versus Smarty Jones’ near-Triple Crown triumph. Anybody with a stopwatch and a pair of working eyeballs knew who the better horse was — by a mile.
This year, however, I think the case can be made that Justify is both more accomplished and better than Accelerate. Just take a look at the past performances:
While one could reasonably claim that Accelerate’s speed rations (pace figures) were superior earlier in the year — and I wouldn’t argue — it’s tough to make that assertion later on. Plus, we have to remember that Justify was still very young and inexperienced when he won the Triple Crown; hence, he was only going to get better as the year wore on (whereas Accelerate’s speed and pace figures suggest the opposite effect).
Frankly, I agree with Justify’s Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who told Horse Racing Nation that his horse was an “easy” choice for Horse of the Year.
“I thought I was going to win [the Kentucky Derby] with McKinzie, and then all of a sudden, [Justify] came in there. I can’t believe [the voters have] already forgotten about him. That hurts my feelings,” Baffert said with a laugh. “They need to go back on YouTube and watch those races.”
Indeed they do.