The recently departed Aretha Franklin famously sang of R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If history is any guide, Accelerate might not get the amount he is potentially due when it comes time to count votes for 2018 Horse of the Year.
Except for a narrow loss in the Oaklawn H. (G2) to City of Light, a defeat he avenged in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) with retroactive interest, Accelerate has built, race-by-race, a record worthy of a serious Horse of the Year contender. The latest example was a tour de force performance in Saturday’s Pacific Classic (G1).
An untimely defeat or other unforeseen developments are ever-present barriers standing in between a candidate and his quest for Horse of the Year. Right now, though, the blue wall in Accelerate’s way is Justify, the retired Triple Crown winner.
As every pundit (voter and non-voter alike) will tell you, no Triple Crown winner has been denied the Horse of the Year title since year-end polling began in 1936. There are no doubt quite a number of voters, perhaps a majority, whose personal ballot officially closed (in their minds) on the evening of June 9. They consider the achievement of a Triple Crown sweep sacrosanct, one that cannot be upstaged at any point the remaining 47 weeks of the year. To believe or act otherwise is heretical.
Aside from the possible hypocrisy on display as some of these voters might be the same folks who castigated others in past seasons for not considering the “body of work” or the entire year’s worth of results, here are a few things to keep in mind.
The first is a reminder that as difficult and rare as a Triple Crown sweep is and has been, we’re talking about a series restricted to three-year-olds, closer in equivalency to the USGA Junior Amateur Championship than the U.S. Open. This is not to deny that the racing season most everywhere generally revolves around what happens with the classic generation. It’s just that a lot of very good horses are unable to state their case on those stages due to ineligibility.
While the precedent of awarding Horse of the Year honors to Triple Crown winners is very firm, were all of those decisions correct? Let’s look at the three cases that most closely resemble Justify’s.
In 1943, Count Fleet did not race beyond the Belmont, a race he won by 25 lengths against two rivals. His cumulative margin of victory in the Triple Crown races was 36 lengths, albeit against a grand total of 14 horses. There was not much competition from the older male ranks as DRF poll voters could not split Devil Diver and Market Wise for division honors, which was strange as Devil Diver officially placed ahead of Market Wise in all four of their stakes meetings.
In 1977, Seattle Slew was undefeated through his Triple Crown sweep but was not seen in action again after finishing fourth in the Swaps (G1) at Hollywood Park in early July. Reigning three-time Horse of the Year Forego overcame staggering weight imposts and fragile ankles to win a fourth consecutive older male title, but the depth of his accomplishment was less than it had been in previous seasons. Seattle Slew won by 105.5 votes to 84.5 votes for Forego.
What about 1978? Triple Crown winner Affirmed did face older horses. The best, in fact, in Seattle Slew. Twice. While the latter meeting in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) was inconclusive after Affirmed’s saddle slipped, their first, in the Marlboro Cup (G1), was a fairly decisive victory for Seattle Slew. Despite getting one pound on the scale from his younger rival, Seattle Slew pummeled Affirmed by three lengths.
Yes, Seattle Slew might have caught Affirmed at the tail-end of a taxing campaign after the Triple Crown winner was tooth and nail to beat Alydar multiple times. Let’s not forget, though, that Seattle Slew had to beat back an even more imposing rival — death — earlier in the year as a life-threatening infection kept him out of action during a significant part of the season.
Affirmed wound up with the first of two Horse of the Year titles for his 1978 campaign (90.5 votes to 78.25 votes for Seattle Slew), but the view here from a distance is that was a mistaken choice. While that can be debated, it’s a precedent that will unfortunately hamper any would-be contenders to a title many believe Justify is already entitled to.
Accelerate, of course, hasn’t yet clinched his own division title. He still has two intended starts left this season, the Awesome Again (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). He could very well lose the older male title to another worthy contender in the Classic. He could lose to Justify by proxy if the Classic happens to be won by a three-year-old.
If, however, Accelerate runs the table, it should be a time of serious introspection for Eclipse Award voters with long-held, possibly dogmatic, beliefs. One that shouldn’t be taken lightly.