Justify, Accelerate neck and neck for Horse of the Year

In this Horse of the Year debate, which has intensified since Accelerate’s Breeders’ Cup Classic victory last weekend, let’s establish one undeniable fact.

Justify and Accelerate are worthy of the award. Both had excellent seasons and are championship horses.

But Eclipse Award voters must choose one or the other. They can’t split their votes. I would have loved to split my vote in 2009 and had Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra share Horse of the Year, but you can’t do it. Of course, Rachel Alexandra ultimately won the award. Zenyatta won it the following year.

This year, strong cases can be made for Justify and Accelerate. Both won multiple Grade I races, both traveled out of their comfort zones and won, and both demonstrated superiority over their rivals. Neither one could have done anything more than asked of them.

For instance, consider Accelerate’s resume:

* Won six of his seven starts, including five Grade I victories. He was, far and away, the best older male horse in the nation this year.

Accelerate and jockey Joel Rosario won the Grade I, $1,000,000 TVG Pacific Classic on Aug. 18, 2018, at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.<br />(Photo courtesy of Benoit Photo)

* Four of his victories came at the taxing distance of a mile and one quarter, not an easy feat. For example, the connections for a horse as good as City of Light opted for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile over the Classic because of the added distance.

* Joined Lava Man and Game On Dude as only the third horse to sweep California’s Big Three – the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup and Pacific Classic – in the same year.

Now, a look at Justify’s record:

* He broke the 135-year Apollo Curse (winning the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old) after his career debut at Santa Anita (Feb. 18) less than three months earlier.

* The son of Scat Daddy won all six of his starts, including four Grade I races in 112 days at four different distances in four states. Think about that for a few seconds. That’s incredible. Even more so when you consider he was so inexperienced.

* Not only did he become the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner, but he’s the first undefeated Triple Crown champion.

Take away one of the two horses and the other is quite possibly a unanimous Horse of the Year.

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I’m going to cast my vote for Justify, and here’s why:

* While Accelerate enjoyed a fantastic year, Justify’s campaign was historic. None of us may ever see another Justify in our lifetimes.

* Justify brought more attention to the sport than Accelerate, and that’s not a minor consideration. In an era where the sport’s popularity has waned, we want people talking about horse racing.

For instance, in the week leading up to the Belmont Stakes, a prominent radio talk-show host had Nick Zito on his show to talk about the Triple Crown. No way Zito’s on the show if the Triple Crown hadn’t been up for grabs.

There’s one other factor in play: Accelerate did lose a race and Justify didn’t.

City of Light, who easily disposed of his competition in the Dirt Mile, beat Accelerate at a mile and an eighth in the Oaklawn Handicap on April 14. Accelerate turned the tables on May 26, easily getting the best of City of Light in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

This is a Horse of the Year race in which there is no loser. If there is a loser, it’s Monomoy Girl. The 3-year-old filly, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, would be a major player for the award if there had been no dominant males this year. She put together a stellar campaign that would have included six Grade I victories if not for her disqualification in the Cotillion Stakes at Parx on Sept. 22.

So the Horse of the Year debate will rage on until the winner is announced Jan. 24 during the Eclipse Awards dinner at Gulfstream Park. It will get nasty on social media, one side knocking the other’s shortcomings, of which there are really none.

But if you want a really juicy debate, how about this one: Who’s the best female grass horse in the world, Enable or Winx?

I’m not going there.

Follow Art Wilson on Twitter at @Sham73

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