August 8, 2022

Accelerate or Justify? Horse of the Year debate turns on definition

Accelerate lived up to his favoritism and wrapped up his 2018 championship campaign with a nice win in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) under Joel Rosario at Churchill Downs on November 3, 2018 (c) Jamie Newell/Horsephotos.com

Whenever mutually worthy candidates are up for Horse of the Year, strong cases can be made for both. But the ultimate result turns on what the majority of the Eclipse Award voters thinks the golden statuette represents – i.e., the definition of Horse of the Year.

For many, like Ed DeRosa, Justify is a slam dunk as the Triple Crown winner. Not only did he complete the rare sweep unbeaten, but Justify achieved it in unprecedented fashion, after going unraced as a two-year-old. According to this view, Horse of the Year is synonymous with outstanding historic accomplishment, especially in the classic races.

The rival school of thought, well explicated by Vance Hanson, is that Horse of the Year should reflect the highest level of form overall. As glorious as the Triple Crown is, it’s confined to three-year-olds, and it does not necessarily follow that the best three-year-old is also the best horse in the entire American racing landscape. That’s why sophomores undergo the rite of passage of taking on elders as the season progresses. The classic generation is measured by how they stack up against the older horses.

With Justify’s retirement before he could match wits with top older male Accelerate, he never made it to that rite of passage. We’ll never know if he could have emulated American Pharoah by adding the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) to his Triple Crown trophy.

This lacuna on his resume is no technicality when it comes to Horse of the Year. It could have been overlooked if there were no serious alternative, or if he had gotten a material form boost in absentia.

Yet there is no escaping the fact that Justify’s beaten foes have let the form down since the Triple Crown. Indeed, the remaining sophomore colts were put in their place by the older horses, and worse still, the Triple Crown veterans were drubbed by fresh faces in the Travers (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G1).

In contrast, Accelerate’s form gained in stature over the course of the season, culminating in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His earlier victories in the Santa Anita H. (G1), Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1), and Pacific Classic (G1) could have been undervalued as a case of the big fish in a proverbial small pond. I definitely underestimated his Awesome Again (G1), focusing too much on champion West Coast’s comeback effort and not enough on Accelerate’s merit in beating him. Even Accelerate’s only loss of the campaign, a near-miss in the Oaklawn H. (G2), took on greater importance in the end after City of Light crushed the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1).

By capping the year in the Classic, Accelerate defeated a cast deeper than any Justify had the opportunity to face in his career. If you gauge a horse by those he vanquished, Accelerate comes out on top.

As a Justify fan every step of the way, I understand his Horse of the Year appeal. But as an observer who can’t overlook the form book, I have to vote for Accelerate.