No Triple Crown winner has ever been denied the honor of being named Horse of the Year — not one. Therefore, it would be easy to assume that this year’s race was effectively over the exact moment that Justify crossed the wire first in the Belmont Stakes.
While many voters undoubtedly considered their Horse of the Year vote to be a done deal, despite the calendar year not even being half over, the assumption may have been premature. Putting precedent aside for a moment, plenty has happened since that early evening result of Saturday, June 9.
First off, the Triple Crown winner was retired. Unfortunately for fans of racing, Justify would never see the second half of the year in his first season of racing. Still, the son of Scat Daddy did plenty in an undefeated run in the first half of the year, winning a maiden, allowance and the Santa Anita Derby, before sweeping the Holy Grail of American racing. Then, the top older horse in the country really began to roll.
Make no mistake, Accelerate has earned his place in the Horse of the Year argument. A four-time Grade 1 winner this year, the son of Lookin At Lucky has swept all of California’s biggest races – the Santa Anita Handicap, the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, the Pacific Classic, and the Awesome Again in dominant style. Add in a decisive victory in the Grade 2 San Antonio, and a very brave second-place finish in the Oaklawn Handicap, and you can see why Accelerate is making this a debate.
On Saturday, he will face his biggest test yet in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. There at Churchill Downs, he will face the best field assembled in American racing in 2018. A victory in the Classic would be the cherry on top of a wonderful season, and would likely make him an unanimous choice as the best Older Dirt Male. It would also make him a worthy candidate for the Horse of the Year title.
Still, there is that precedent … No Triple Crown winner has ever been denied the Horse of the Year title. Perhaps the heart of the unbroken trend can be best illustrated exactly four decades ago. Affirmed was racing’s heartthrob the first half of 1978. Ridden by the “Kid”, Steve Cauthen, the champion chestnut denied his top rival Alydar, over and over again, on his way to Triple Crown glory. He was not the best horse of the second half of the year, though, far from it.
Seattle Slew, the Triple Crown winner from the year before, overcame a near death sickness, and a stunning upset at the hands of Dr. Patches at the Meadowlands, to be healthy and ready for the most important races (back then) of the fall. In the Marlboro Cup, Affirmed was little match for Seattle Slew, with the older horse winning a decisive three-length decision.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup was a little more complicated, with Slew breaking through the gate before the race, the saddle of Affirmed slipping, and a suicidal three-horse speed duel, but there can be little doubt as to who America’s best horse was when it was complete. Seattle Slew ran one of the bravest races ever to miss by a whisker to Exceller, in a race that could not have set up better for the latter.
That Horse of the Year vote of 1978 was relatively close, but in the end, Affirmed was given the award over a horse who was clearly better that fall. It’s been 40 years since that decision, and this year’s argument is a different, but it’s fair to wonder if anything has changed since the days of Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
While going squarely against the Triple Crown winner as Horse of the Year precedent, there are a couple of factors working in Accelerate’s favor. Keep in mind that as romantic and sacred as a Triple Crown sweep, it comes in races restricted to 3-year-olds. Obviously, as a 5-year-old, Accelerate has been racing against mature older horses every step of the way in 2018.
Secondly, what about a backlash? Is it possible that Justify is punished by voters who, like fans, are tired of early retirements, and might prefer to reward a horse still around and thriving at the age of five?
Of course, all this becomes a moot point should Accelerate go down to defeat to a full field in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but if he wins, and closes the deal on an excellent season … well, then the debate really begins.
Photo of Accelerate courtesy of Benoit Photo