Accelerate or Justify: Which one is Horse of the Year?

Justify_and_Accelerate
Justify (top) and Accelerate are certain to be the top two finishers for Horse of the Year at next month's Eclipse Awards. But in what order? Voters must make their decision by Wednesday. (Photos by Ron Flatter)

Las Vegas

The seed was planted in late August. The morning of the 26th, to be exact.

I was making my regular Sunday appearance on Mike Willman’s “Thoroughbred Los Angeles” radio show on KLAA, and the subject was Accelerate.

“If he wins out,” Willman said, “he’s going to get a lot of votes.”

He was referring to the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, an honor seemingly put to bed on June 9, when Justify completed an unprecedented run to the Triple Crown on just the 112th day of his racing career.

My immediate response was that “it’s hard to get around an undefeated horse that wins a Triple Crown.” And I declared that “Justify is going to be the Horse of the Year.”

Not so fast, Ron. Accelerate did win out, making the Breeders’ Cup Classic his fifth Grade 1 victory of the year, one more than Justify. And he did it in open company, not just against 3-year-olds – the only competition that Justify faced.

So now the debate rages on, especially with the voices ringing in my head. When I fill out my Eclipse Award ballot in the next few days, do I vote for Accelerate or Justify?

As I was writing this and wrestling with this dilemma, I went out of my way to ignore whether William Hill or anyone else had put up a prop bet on which horse would finally get the award late next month. My own personal ethics tell me that I shall not bet on it, and like a dogmatic ostrich, I have buried my head in the sand to avoid seeing what odds may be posted.

I have gone back and forth on my vote for weeks, all the while getting direct input from connections and people whom I respect. From trainers John Sadler and Bob Baffert. From owners Kosta Hronis and Elliott Walden. From third parties like horseplaying author Peter Thomas Fornatale and Blood-Horse racing historian Steve Haskin.

“It all depends on what your definition of Horse of the Year is and what your criteria is,” Haskin said.

Without arriving at a decision on my vote – one of about 250 that must be cast by 3 p.m. EST Wednesday – I did reach one conclusion right away. This is all about how much the Triple Crown is worth in each voter’s eyes. If this were a blind comparison of performance in 2018, it would be a no-brainer. It would be Accelerate in a romp.

“I keep coming back to the college vs. pro analogy,” said Fornatale, who co-hosts the Daily Racing Form Players Podcast. “When I look at these two horses side by side, I just don’t feel at any time during the year that Justify would have been expected to beat Accelerate in a horse race.”

But this is not simply about a head-to-head competition between horses from two divisions. What if this were a vote between a turf specialist like 2-year-old filly Newspaperofrecord and an older, dirt sprinter like Roy H? This is about weighing accomplishments.

“In the Breeders’ Cup Classic there’s a winner every year, and I’ve won it with 3-year-olds,” Baffert said. “If they’re really good in the spring, they’re twice as good in the fall. We witnessed something that is very rare with Justify. To do what he did in a short period of time is just unheard of. I’ve had horses that could be just as fast, but I can’t get three or four runs out of them that are just constant. He ran hard every time. And he was only 3. What he did was superior.”

That raises the question of how to judge Justify’s short career. His critics – and many of Accelerate’s supporters – are quick to say that this is an award for Horse of the Year, not the Horse of the One-Third of the Year.

“In five years people are going to remember Justify,” said WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden, who managed the ownership of Justify before the colt’s sale to the Coolmore America stud farm for a reported $75 million to $85 million. “I think to win a Triple Crown does constitute excellence, and it does constitute consistency. And the fact that he did it in 112 days is a positive, not a negative.”

But if we are talking about racing rarities, Hronis, who with his brother Peter owns Accelerate, made the argument that Accelerate did something that was even more extraordinary.

“They say it’s hard to win the Triple Crown,” Hronis said. “I can argue that it’s just as hard to win four Grade 1s at a mile-and-a-quarter. Since 1973, when they started doing graded races, only three other horses have done it – Affirmed, Alysheba and Cigar. Accelerate is the fourth to do it. In that same time frame there have been five Triple Crown winners.”

Accelerate’s strength of schedule across his seven races with two riders – Víctor Espinoza and Joel Rosario – did bring him the only loss on the record of either horse in 2018. That was by a neck in April at the Oaklawn Handicap, where he conceded three pounds to the winner City Of Light. Six weeks later, despite four pounds of extra weight, Accelerate avenged the loss by beating City Of Light and four others in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

“He has taken on all challengers,” said John Sadler, who got his first ever Breeders’ Cup win with Accelerate. “We’ve never really ducked a horse. Whoever showed up to run against us, we were in there. (Rivals) saw his Rag numbers and his speed figures and his Beyers. They didn’t really want to run against him. But that shouldn’t be to his discredit. It should be his strength.”

Accelerate certainly put up bigger Beyer Speed Figures, including a best of 115 from his 12½-length win in last summer’s Pacific Classic. Justify peaked with a 107 in the Santa Anita Derby.

The competition each horse faced could be simultaneously praised and criticized. Accelerate fended off nine Grade/Group 1 winners in a Breeders’ Cup Classic that was a road game for him. It is hard to poke holes in that. But the competition he beat at home in southern California was thin. Yes, Pavel and Mubtaahij were Grade 1 winners, too, but enigmatically so weighed against their bodies of work.

In the Derby and Preakness, Justify got all he could handle from 2017 juvenile champion Good Magic, the eventual winner of the Haskell Invitational. The ever-durable Bravazo also pushed him right to the end of the Preakness, and he will be one of Accelerate’s rivals in next month’s $9 million Pegasus World Cup. On the other hand, third-place Derby finisher Audible did not bolster Justify’s résumé when he was a beaten, odds-on favorite two weeks ago in the Grade 3 Harlan’s Holiday at Gulfstream Park. Of the horses that Justify beat in the Derby, only 15th-place Promises Fulfilled has won a race against older horses – the Grade 2 Phoenix sprint in October at Keeneland.

What becomes even more difficult to weigh in this vote are Justify’s historical accomplishments, simply because most of us really have not been able to wrap our arms around them.

“He removed the name Apollo from our lips after 136 years,” Haskin said. “Everybody knows he became the first horse in 136 years to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. But he was also the second horse in 103 years to win the Derby with only three career starts. And he was only one of three horses to do it in the 144-year history of the Derby.”

Then Haskin pointed out the easy one to grasp. “He became only the second undefeated horse in history to sweep the Triple Crown.”

Some things, though, cannot be boiled down to historic facts and figures. What about the challenges to rush Justify to immortality? As Haskin pointed out, the first 12 Triple Crown winners finished their sweeps an average of 11 months after their debuts. Baffert and jockey Mike Smith had to cram all that learning into their 1,268-pound prodigy in a third of the time.

“There is nothing that stood in his way,” Walden said. “Whether it was winning a Triple Crown in 112 days, whether it was beating the Apollo curse, whether it was running on a sloppy racetrack twice, whether it was the distance or even whether it was jumping shadows. You have to consider the uniqueness of it and the specialness of it.”

So is that an achievement or a shiny object? The Triple Crown is, like all traditions, a contrivance that has stood the test of time. As racing has evolved in the nearly 100 years since Sir Barton completed the first sweep, so has the way trainers approach the classics. In recent years many have predicted that the curse of Apollo was just waiting to be broken in part because 2-year-olds are brought along much more carefully now. Does anyone think that it will not happen again soon?

In a sense, all these questions and even Justify’s singular mission to win the Triple Crown has led to the questioning of whether it should be all that coveted an accomplishment in a time when racing careers are getting shorter and shorter – and when quantity of races does not seem as important as the quality.

“In some ways the Triple Crown is a bit of a glass ceiling for racing,” Fornatale said. “By pushing horses so hard to get through those three races in five weeks, I'm just not sure that it’s a net positive for the sport. By rewarding the achievements of older horses, that could lead to a healthier sport.”

That notion falls in line with what Hronis Racing did with Accelerate. He could have gone to stud after his 4-year-old season that included his upset victory over Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap. But Hronis said that Accelerate wanted to keep racing, something he hopes is not taken for granted.

“I want to reward the 5-year-old that stayed on the racetrack and continued to race,” Hronis said. “To reward him for his accomplishments for running against older horses and running with extra weight. I think our sport needs the stars to stay around a little longer.”

Should that desire be a factor in this debate? That could be considered an agenda. While that might be inappropriate in the eyes of the media and racing officials and secretaries who have ballots, that does not necessarily mean that voters are without other untoward influences.

“I think there’s a lot of anti-Baffert sentiment,” Haskin said. “For some reason people resent Baffert. Maybe they just resent his success. WinStar Farm and the China Horse Club (a partner in Justify) don’t exactly convey the warm-hearted, feel-good story either. It’s more of a corporate story. The fact that they retired him after the Belmont Stakes, a lot of people were very upset – myself included.”

Oh, yes. That confounded, early retirement for an injury. Cynics would say that it was really to avoid risking the big stallion dollars had Justify been seriously hurt in a racing encore.

Instead, we are left to compare and contrast the traditional season of success of an older, handicap horse with a masterpiece that is the equine equivalent of Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of George Washington.

“It’s the biggest arena of our sport – the classics,” Baffert said. “That was the toughest Kentucky Derby going in. They were good horses going in there. Unfortunately for the other horses, Justify just ran them all into the ground.”

The morning after the Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, Sadler put it simply.

“On his own merit he has won five Grade 1s, beating whoever came up against him,” he said. “You had some good horses from Europe. You had good horses from New York. You had good horses in a world championship. Accelerate defeated them all. He’s had a great campaign. I think his record speaks for itself.”

As for the final word, about 250 of us will have it. As conflicted as I am over which horse to choose, I only hope that I do the right thing – and that the margin of victory is more than just a single vote.

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden and Hronis Racing co-owner Kosta Hronis making cases for Justify and Accelerate to be Horse of the Year. Steve Haskin of the Blood-Horse offers historical perspective on the debate. The feature Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse with a name starting with “G.” The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.

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