Every year, the sport of Thoroughbred racing crowns annual champions in each age, sex and surface division. Though each award is an honor, the Eclipse Award for Champion Horse of the Year is the most highly regarded award for an American Thoroughbred racehorse.
Some years, horses make compelling cases for the honors, resulting in debate and deeper analysis to determine the correct Champion.
In 2018, the current debate for Horse of the Year is between 5-year-old Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate and 3-year-old Triple Crown winner Justify.
Who has the final advantage? Find out who we think may be crowned the champion but watch out for a longshot we’ve spotted closing from behind.
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Accelerate won the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic as the favorite in a field of 14 horses.
The Breeders’ Cup Classic is the most prestigious dirt race in the United States. Though it does not guarantee Horse of the Year honors, many horses who win the Breeders’ Cup Classic are subsequently named Champion Horse of the Year.
Since the Breeders’ Cup was first held in 1984, 13 horses have been named Horse of the Year following a Classic victory.
In addition, several horses, such as Zenyatta and Skip Away, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and were named Horse of the Year but not in the same year. Other horses were defeated in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, such as California Chrome, but named Horse of the Year despite this loss.
2018 was the first year that Accelerate ran in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but it was his third Breeder’s Cup appearance. He raced in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile twice, finishing third in 2016 and ninth in 2017.
Justify did not race as a 2-year-old, so he did not run in any of the 2-year-old Breeders’ Cup races. He was retired shortly after his Belmont Stakes win in June of 2018, months before the Breeders’ Cup. He retired without ever competing in or winning a Breeders’ Cup race.
Accelerate debuted in Southern California in April of 2016, shortly before the Kentucky Derby. Without prep races and qualifying points, he was not eligible to compete in the Derby. He continued his summer 3-year-old campaign in California and never competed in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes or Belmont Stakes.
The classic races may have never been part of the original plan for Accelerate’s career, but that was clearly the intention for Justify.
Justify also debuted as a 3-year-old, an unusual move for a horse pointed toward the Kentucky Derby because they are limited by time and prepare for the Derby as to earn the necessary points to qualify.
On Justify’s debut in February, he won his first career race at Santa Anita. In his third start, his connections entered him in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, one of the most prestigious races in California for 3-year-olds. The stake is also a Kentucky Derby prep race and finishing first or even second in the race gives a horse more than enough points to qualify.
Justify won the Santa Anita Derby, and from there continued to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He was just the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown in over 100 years, and only the second in 39 years.
Winning the Triple Crown is a rare feat. It can only be attempted once in a horse’s career when they are three years old, with three specific races that must all be won, often against fresh horses, and at three different tracks across the country.
Of the other 12 horses who managed to win the Triple Crown, only one was not also named Horse of Year. In 1935, year-end Champion honors went to Discovery instead of Triple Crown winner Omaha.
Both Justify and Accelerate debuted and were based in Southern California. In the past, some horses have been criticized for not racing outside of their home state. That argument is moot here, as both raced half or more of their 2018 starts in California and traveled outside of the state to face different company.
Of Accelerate’s seven starts, five were in Southern California and all were victories. He shipped to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, finishing second in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, and shipped to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup.
Justify made his first three starts in Southern California and made each of his three subsequent starts at three different tracks: Churchill Downs in Kentucky, Pimlico in Maryland, and Belmont Park in New York.
Half of his career starts were outside of his home state, and he shipped from one track to another without returning home for his last three races.
Accelerate has earned $5,792,480 in his career. Of those earnings, $5,005,000 were from races held in 2018. On average, each time he raced this year, he made $715,000.
In seven starts in 2018, one more than Justify, Accelerate finished first six times. In his one loss of the year, he finished second.
Justify earned $3,798,00 in his career; on average, he earned $633,000 per start. The young horse managed to retire undefeated with six wins in six starts; the same number of wins as Accelerate.
In addition to their earnings or records, it is worth analyzing the overall strength of each horse’s campaign and the kinds of races in which they competed.
All of Accelerate’s seven starts in 2018 were in graded stakes. Five of his races were Grade 1 events while two were Grade 2. All five of his wins were in Grade 1 events, including not just the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but the three classic California stakes for older dirt horses: the Santa Anita Handicap, the Gold Cup, and the Pacific Classic.
Of Justify’s six starts, four were in Grade 1 stakes races, and the other two were not graded. Justify debuted in 2018, and his first race — as is usually the case for all Thoroughbreds — was in a maiden special weight race, not a stakes race.
Justify won all four of his graded races: the Santa Anita Derby and the Triple Crown races.
Though the two candidates both make compelling arguments, Justify is more deserving of the honor than Accelerate. Both had excellent campaigns, but winning the Triple Crown is a rare occurrence. Theoretically, Accelerate or even Justify, had he not been retired, could replicate Accelerate’s 2018 campaign in 2019. But neither can ever replicate what Justify accomplished.
Arguments against Justify include his short career – just 100 days passed between when he debuted and when he made his final start – as well as his relatively early retirement from racing.
Detractors hold history against Justify, when horses of 70 years ago would be more likely to continue racing not only after their Triple Crown win but often into their 4-year-old year and beyond.
American Pharoah made a clear case for Horse of the Year Honors in 2015: he swept the Triple Crown races and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, his retirement was also announced during his 3-year-old year, following the Breeders’ Cup.
The recency effect may be holding Accelerate’s career in a more favorable light, also. He won what is likely his final race of 2018 in early November, five months after Justify’s last win and retirement.
Justify and Accelerate are obvious candidates for Horse of the Year, but voters could stray from the debate and select a third horse in their place. Could a case be made for Monomoy Girl as Horse of the Year?
Monomoy Girl is a 3-year-old filly who did everything you could ask a 3-year-old filly to do. She won Rachel Alexandra Stakes at the Fair Grounds and the Ashland at Keeneland. She won the Kentucky Oaks, then shipped to Belmont to win the Acorn. These victories were followed by the winning the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga, a second-place finish in a controversial disqualification at Parx in the Cotillion Stakes. Monomy Girl then shipped to Churchill Downs to face and defeat older fillies and mares in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Like Accelerate, she made seven starts, won six, and finished second in her only loss.
Every one of Monomoy Girl’s starts was in a graded stakes race. Six of her starts were in Grade 1 races; one was a Grade 2. Five of her wins were in Grade 1 races, more than Accelerate or Justify.
She raced at six different tracks in seven starts, more than Justify and Accelerate combined.
In short, Monomoy Girl ran the filly version of the ultimate male 3-year-old campaign, traveling for every start to face the toughest in her division before winning a Breeders’ Cup race against the best in older company.
If a male 3-year-old had won the Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and many other Grade 1 races in one year, they would undoubtedly be named Horse of the Year.
Since annual champions were first named in 1887, 12 fillies or mares have been given the honor. Six of these fillies were named Horse of the Year since the modern era of the Eclipse Awards began in 1971.
There is some precedent for the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff also being honored as Horse of the Year. Two fillies have earned the title following their Distaff win: Lady’s Secret in 1986 and Azeri in 2002. A third, Zenyatta, won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2008 and was named Horse of the Year in a different year — 2010 — the same year she unsuccessfully attempted to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic for a second consecutive year.
Who will be awarded Horse of the Year? We’ll find out on January 24, 2019 at the annual ceremony at Gulfstream Park. In the meantime, there is still plenty of action to watch and wager online! Sign up with TwinSpires, TVG or Xpressbet, a partner of Gulfstream, where you can choose your own sign-up bonus up to $500.
Image credit: Horse Racing Nation and Racing Dudes