Justify, Accelerate, Horse of the Year, and Unfair Conundrums

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.

mr-peabody-and-sherman

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.

Saratoga Race Course Analysis, Selections, and Bankroll: 9/1/18 (Woodward Day)

BANKROLL

BANKROLL: $1,254.20

In any industry, one is prone to bonding with colleagues. Horse racing is no different, and I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some extraordinary people over the course of my career. One of them is making his maiden voyage to Saratoga for Woodward Day, so it’s appropriate that I dedicate this section to him.

Danny Kovoloff is one of the kindest, most good-hearted people you’d ever hope to meet. He kept me sane for several years at a prior stop in my career, and was one of a few people I leaned on during a particularly rough situation about a year and a half ago. I owe him a lot, so here’s my request: If any of you readers out there run into him today, please ask him many questions about the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, which doubles as his favorite race of all-time.

FRIDAY’S RESULTS: We were alive to OK will-pays in our doubles, but could do no better than third in the second leg and dropped $20.

SATURDAY’S PLAY: I think today’s Pick Four sequences are pretty attractive, and I’ll focus on the early one starting in the second race. My 50-cent ticket is as follows: 7,9 with 4,8,9 with 2,4,5,8 with 1,4,7. I’m trying to beat morning line favorite Weather Wiz in the payoff leg, and if that one fails to win, this could pay pretty well.

TOTAL WAGERED: $36

ANALYSIS/SELECTIONS

Best Bet: Raging Bull, Race 9
Longshot: Hence, Race 11

R1

Signalman
Frolic More
Fed Fever

#6 SIGNALMAN: Ran on late to be second behind an eventual graded stakes winner in his debut. He’s coming off a bit of a layoff, but he’s been working very well here for a barn that’s done well at the meet; #5 FROLIC MORE: Has been working lights-out here for a trainer that won with a debuting runner on Travers Day. If he runs to the work tab, he’s got a big shot to win first time out; #8 FED FEVER: Was bet a bit at first asking and finished well behind the promising Nitrous. He’s worked well since that race, and improvement seems logical at second asking.

R2

Platinum Prince
Zoot Suit
Natural Order

#9 PLATINUM PRINCE: Was claimed last time out by Robertino Diodoro, who has strong numbers with new acquisitions. He hasn’t won in a while, but he drops to run here for aggressive connections; #7 ZOOT SUIT: Hasn’t run in a while and drops in class, but he could be tough if he channels some of his back turf form. He’s got plenty of early zip and should be prominent early; #8 NATURAL ORDER: Cuts way back in distance, but has some back turf sprints that aren’t bad. This barn has done well with a limited number of runners this meet, and Franco sees fit to ride back.

R3

Business Cycle
House Limit
Brasstown

#4 BUSINESS CYCLE: Has run well in both of his career starts and looms large in this spot. His most recent race was his first outing since November, and any movement forward off of that race would make him incredibly tough to beat; #9 HOUSE LIMIT: Has been working very well ahead of his debut and draws well towards the outside. This isn’t the easiest spot in the world, but this barn’s gotten hot lately and must be respected; #8 BRASSTOWN: Makes his first start for Jorge Navarro after several outings at Woodbine. His lone dirt effort saw him check right out of the gate, which makes it an easy throw-out, and his recent works are sharp.

R4

Team Colors
Attribute
Night Prowler

#5 TEAM COLORS: Came flying late to miss by just a half-length last time out. He was claimed by Robertino Diodoro, and he could benefit from a race shape that figures to be kind to closers; #8 ATTRIBUTE: Certainly seems like the main speed in here, especially given the presence of aggressive rider Kendrick Carmouche. He chased a very talented horse home last time out, and he could overcome a pace that will likely be swift; #4 NIGHT PROWLER: Hasn’t won in nearly two years, but drops in class and adds blinkers for Chad Brown. He’ll likely get a pace to close into, and these are shallower waters than he’s used to.

R5

Plainsman
Uncle Sigh
Wooderson

#7 PLAINSMAN: Makes his first start following a trainer switch to Brad Cox. This is a pace play, as while he hasn’t won in a while, every other horse wants to be on or near the lead, which could set things up for this one to pick up the pieces; #1 UNCLE SIGH: Was second against similar foes earlier in the meet and generally runs the same race every time out. He may need to go early to secure position from the rail, but his best could certainly win this; #4 WOODERSON: Graduated earlier in the meet, and while he sat a perfect trip, he came home very quickly. Rachel Alexandra’s younger half-brother may be coming into his own, but he’ll likely need to go much faster early on.

R6

Noble Spirit
Noble Nebraskan
Spirit Animal

#2 NOBLE SPIRIT: Was a solid third in his debut going two turns, which is never an easy route to travel first time out. George Weaver saddles a pair of contenders in this race, and this one’s worked well since his unveiling; #7 NOBLE NEBRASKAN: May finally get a chance to run for Weaver after scratching several times earlier in the meet. He’s bred up and down to be a strong turf horse, and I’ve been waiting for him to debut for weeks; #3 SPIRIT ANIMAL: Was a distant fourth in an off-the-turf event, and every bit of his pedigree says he’s a grass horse, so I can draw a line through that race. This seems like the trip he wants, and these connections merit respect.

R7

Long Haul Bay
Uno Mas Modelo
Devils Halo

#6 LONG HAUL BAY: Ran terribly in a state-bred stakes race, but that was such a departure from his prior form that I’m ignoring it. I think it’s likely he bounces back to his early-season form, and if he does, he’s got a big shot in a wide-open event; #3 UNO MAS MODELO: Has won two in a row, including a swiftly-run allowance race earlier in the meet at a big price. Javier Castellano rides in this spot for a barn that’s hit with four of its 12 local runners this summer; #7 DEVILS HALO: Has won two of his three starts and has shown a lot of early zip. This is a class test, but he’s bred to get better with experience, and the outside draw could be a big help.

R8

Strike Me Down
Hizeem
Vegas Kitten

#4 STRIKE ME DOWN: Made a big middle move last time out against similar-level foes, only to be beaten a neck. He always seems to fire, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he shows a bit more early speed in this spot; #10 HIZEEM: Broke his maiden earlier in the meet and tries winners for the first time. He’s worked very well since that race and has a big shot, but he must negotiate a trip from the far outside post; #2 VEGAS KITTEN: Add blinkers for the first time after an OK showing at this level in late-July. His lone win came when he was close to the pace, and the blinkers could get him involved early on.

R9

Raging Bull
Therapist
Golden Brown

#3 RAGING BULL: Had a lot going against him in the Grade 2 Hall of Fame, but rallied and got up in the last jump over yielding going. The faster they go early, the more he figures to like it, and there’s some speed signed on here; #7 THERAPIST: Has won six of eight career starts, and while he’s beaten weaker groups in his last two outings, there’s a chance he’s peaking coming into this race. His flexibility is a plus, and he may be a bit of a price given the class jump; #4 GOLDEN BROWN: Prevailed in the Grade 3 Kent two back, where he beat eventual Grade 1 Secretariat winner Carrick. A dirt experiment in the Grade 1 Haskell didn’t go well, but this seems like the right level and spot for him.

R10

Chasing Yesterday
Restless Rider
Virginia Eloise

#7 CHASING YESTERDAY: Is the younger sister of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and ran very well in her debut at Del Mar. Baffert and Smith mean business when they come to Saratoga, and she’s been working very well ahead of this Grade 1 event; #11 RESTLESS RIDER: Has done nothing wrong to this point, as she’s gone 2 for 2 with two daylight wins. She has a recent bullet work to her credit over the training track, and the outside draw could be a boost; #3 VIRGINIA ELOISE: Made up lots of ground in the Grade 2 Adirondack, where she missed by just a half-length. There’s a ton of speed signed on, and this one’s bred to want the additional distance some of her opponents may be dreading.

R11

Gunnevera
Seeking the Soul
Hence

#9 GUNNEVERA: Came back running against a much weaker group at Gulfstream in a prep for this Grade 1 event. He was second in last year’s Travers and won the 2016 Saratoga Special here, so the surface isn’t a problem, and there’s a chance he’s only getting better in his 4-year-old campaign; #10 SEEKING THE SOUL: Missed by a head last time out in his first start since January, but that race was not the goal. He’s worked very well since that race, and he figures to be going the right direction late; #5 HENCE: Is inconsistent and sometimes throws in dull efforts, but when he’s right, he’s quite good. He could clunk up for a piece of it in a wide-open renewal of the Woodward.

R12

Santa Monica
Onthemoonagain
Lady Montdore

#5 SANTA MONICA: Has won two of three starts since coming to North America, including the Grade 2 Dance Smartly. She’s taken steps forward in every one of those outings, and her best race would make her very tough; #3 ONTHEMOONAGAIN: Had a rough trip in her North American debut, where she did not get through along the rail. She should improve off of that showing, and her races in France indicate that the added distance won’t be a problem; #8 LADY MONTDORE: Romped at this route earlier in the meet in a race that doubled as her first start in 11 months. A bounce is possible, but she’s another that showed potential overseas and could simply be putting things together with experience.