Is Justify Still a Slam Dunk for Horse of the Year?

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They’re off in the Breeders’ Cup Classic | Matt Wooley/Breeders’ Cup

By Bill Finley

What once seemed like an impossibility–that Triple Crown winner Justify (Scat Daddy) would not be named 2019 Horse of the Year–now seems at least slightly within the realm of possibility. In the most comprehensive poll of Horse of the Year voters released so far, the NTRA’s Top 10 Thoroughbred poll, GI Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate (Lookin at Lucky) received 24 first-place votes to 19 for Justify.

Enable (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}), the winner of the GI Breeders’ Cup Turf, received the remaining three first place votes, but is not considered a serious candidate for Horse of the Year.

“I was voting Justify at No. 1 all the way up until the Breeders’ Cup,” said Accelerate voter Debbie Arrington of the Sacramento Bee. “Accelerate won four Grade I’s at a mile-and-a-quarter this year, and swept the ‘California Triple.’ He did what Lava Man (Slew City Slew) did but then took it one step further and went to the East and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Accelerate had a bad post in the Breeders’ Cup and he did it. With Justify, if you look at the horses he beat and what they accomplished, they haven’t done a whole hell of a lot. It may not have been the best crop. I was always a believer that if you win the Triple Crown you should be Horse of the Year, but when I compared what the two horses did I had a change of heart. It’s ‘Horse of the Year’ and not just the ‘Horse of May and June.'”

While reserving the right to change his mind, Gene Kershner from the Buffalo News, also thought Accelerate’s overall body of work was a factor that could not be ignored.

“Justify won races that were restricted to 3-year-olds and I don’t know yet how to measure the crop of horses he ran against,” he said. “I know people are saying are we really going to diminish the accomplishment of winning the Triple Crown, truly the one thing in horse racing that the non-racing fan cares about? But I have to look at Accelerate’s overall body of work. He won the three major Grade I’s in California for his division and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That’s quite an accomplishment.”

While Accelerate’s lead in the NTRA poll should give his camp hope that he can wrest Horse of the Year away from Justify, who made his last start in the GI Belmont S., it is far from a foregone conclusion that they will win. Only 46 votes were cast in the NTRA poll and last year 250 votes came in for Horse of the Year. That means the NTRA poll represents only about 18% of eligible voters. In addition, some of those taking part in the NTRA poll do not have an Eclipse Award vote.

Also, NTRA voters have different interpretations on what horses belong in the poll. Some will drop a horse entirely once they have been retired or drop them down their list, believing that only active horses should be included. Four of the NTRA voters, including Jill Byrne, the senior director of industry relations for the Breeders’ Cup, did not include Justify in their Top 10.

“Since it’s a weekly poll, I just vote for active horses,” Byrne said. “There’s no criteria when it comes to who is eligible for a vote and maybe there needs to be.”

So who will she vote for?

“I keep going back and forth,” she said. “Put me down as 50-50. It’s tough not to vote for a Triple Crown winner. Justify was an amazing animal. At the same time, it’s difficult to overlook what Accelerate did. He was a very fast horse, solid all year, had a terrific year and topped it off with a win in the Classic.”

Even though voter Tony Palmisano had Accelerate on top in the poll, he said he would vote for Justify for Horse of the Year.

“I dropped Justify down in the poll because he was out of sight out of mind,” Palmisano said. “Justify is my Horse of the Year. If they had ever met I don’t think there’s any doubt that Justify would have beaten Accelerate or that Accelerate would have even gotten close to him. That’s something I always consider, who is the better horse.”

Elliott Walden, the president and CEO of WinStar Farm, one of the co-owners of Justify, does not have a vote and is obviously partial, but he made a strong case for the Triple Crown winner being named Horse of the Year.

“Not every year do you get a Triple Crown winner-there have been 13 in 150 years, while there have been 35 Breeders’ Cup Classic winners,” Walden said. “Justify broke the ‘Apollo Curse’ and did things the experts said could not be done. He was undefeated. He won the Derby after battling through early fractions of :22 1/5 and :45 3/5. He did win four Grade I’s out of six starts. It’s not like he just won one race. Then you have to consider the horses he’s being compared to, Seattle Slew, Affirmed. That puts him in a very elite category. Accelerate had a great year. It’s unfortunate he came along the same year as Justify. It’s just that Justify did something very special.”

Eleven of the 12 previous Triple Crown winners were named Horse of the Year. The exception is 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha, who lost out to Discovery. Discovery, who was four in 1935, won 11 of 19 starts, many of which are races no longer held. The difference may have been that in their lone meeting in 1935, Discovery trounced Omaha in the Brooklyn H., beating his rival by 12 lengths. In what was his first start after the Belmont, Omaha finished third as the even-money favorite.

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