A few days ago, top-notch turf writer and all-around good guy Jeremy Balan attempted to get a constructive dialogue going about Justify, Accelerate, and the voting for Horse of the Year. As most such attempts do, this went haywire quickly, with many respondents on Twitter unable to engage in basic discourse without resorting to tactics often seen during elementary school recess (seriously, folks, we’re better than this).
It’s no secret that I’m passionate about what I believe in when it comes to this issue. I respect Accelerate and what he accomplished this season, but I firmly believe an undefeated Triple Crown winner trumps anything any other thoroughbred could do in a single season. As such, when it comes time for me to submit my Eclipse Award ballot, Justify will earn my Horse of the Year vote.
I understand that others disagree with me on this, and I even get a few of the arguments. Justify didn’t run after the Belmont, and in the back half of the year, Accelerate captured three Grade 1 races (including the Breeders’ Cup Classic). Justify never raced against older horses, and this year’s crop of 3-year-olds (which looked promising at the start of the season) fizzled as the months went by.
However, I can’t help but feel like Justify is paying for something else. Let’s head to Peabody and Sherman’s WABAC Machine and travel all the way back to 2015.
No horse had won racing’s Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and the sport had suffered through several agonizing close calls. Silver Charm never saw Touch Gold. Real Quiet was nosed by Victory Gallop (and may have been taken down had the photo gone the other way). Smarty Jones was several hundred pounds overweight, with half of the riders in the field ganging up on him before Birdstone picked up the pieces.
Out of the darkness came American Pharoah, a four-legged wrecking ball that had demolished two overmatched fields in Arkansas ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Despite being kept extremely wide on the first Saturday in May, he prevailed over Firing Line. A torrential downpour couldn’t stop him two weeks later in the Preakness, and the next month, he made the Belmont Park grandstand shake.
(Relevant tangent: I get a lot of arguments in favor of Accelerate, but the “we’re emphasizing the Triple Crown too much” argument needs to go the way of the dodo bird. In 2015, many of us were wistfully wondering if we’d ever see a Triple Crown winner again, and some in the industry openly wondered if the sequence needed to be changed to make it easier. We’ve gotten two since then, good for a mere 13 in a century, and suddenly it doesn’t matter as much? This is inconsistent at best and flat wrong at worst.)
American Pharoah was instantly revered as a legend. It didn’t matter what he did after that, or who he beat, or that he lost the Travers, or that Beholder scratched ahead of a highly-anticipated showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Because he accomplished something no equine had in nearly four decades, the public was grateful for his presence and didn’t ask questions.
Justify got no such favorable treatment. It was only a three-year gap between Triple Crown winners, and the same guy who trained the last one got to do it again. Even considering Justify’s defiance of the Apollo Curse, his journey to racing’s pantheon seemed…almost ho-hum by comparison. As impressive as it was, there was a hint of, “we saw this movie three years ago, and that one was better.”
For purposes of this exercise, let’s assume American Pharoah either never existed or retired after the Arkansas Derby. In this alternate reality, Firing Line wins the Kentucky Derby, Tale of Verve wins the Preakness, and Frosted wins the Belmont. Racing continues to be without a Triple Crown winner until 2018, when Justify goes from an unraced maiden to the horse that snapped a 40-year drought in less than five months.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that such a scenario would make Justify one of the most beloved horses in history. He’s not seen this way because another Bob Baffert trainee won the same series of races while Justify was nursing.
I submit that such a conundrum is unfair to the horse’s legacy, and that this perception has altered the way some are approaching Horse of the Year balloting. If you’re more impressed by Accelerate’s resume given his year-long campaign and number of Grade 1 victories, I respect that (though I’ll exercise my right to amicably disagree). If you’re voting for Accelerate because of a distorted perception of the Triple Crown, its degree of difficulty, and what another horse did several years ago, I find that ridiculous.