Eng: Choosing Between Two Worthy Horse of the Year Candidates

Justify, left, and Accelerate, right, both have built impressive Horse of the Year credentials. (Eclipse Sportswire)

It is an honor to be among the 270 or so national Eclipse Award voters. Each year our ballots are made public and, more than once, we are subjected to critical ire.

But it comes with the territory where, quite frankly, there are no black-and-white guidelines as to how to vote. A résumé that is good enough to be championship caliber one year may not be good enough in another season.

That is because comparing contenders in each division from year to year is extremely fluid. No horse has a set schedule of stakes races as owners and trainers manage their star horses independently of one another.

Which brings me to this season’s Horse of the Year debate. It is clear that Accelerate and Justify are the top two candidates. Both have had Horse of the Year-quality campaigns but only one will be so named.

Accelerate is by far the best handicap horse this year. He has five Grade 1 wins in the SSanta Anita Handicap Presented by San Miguel Indian Bingo and Casino, the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, the TVG Pacific Classic, the Awesome Again Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His lone loss was in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap to City of Light, who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Meanwhile, Justify won the Triple Crown in a meteoric, brief career. Justify won his debut race on Feb. 18 in a maiden special weight race at Santa Anita Park. In less than four months, he was posing for pictures in the winners’ circle at Belmont Park after victory in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on June 9.

Trainer Bob Baffert once said that the Kentucky Derby is the only race novices ask him if he has ever won. So when Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner in winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes he joined a very public, select group.

That alone makes Justify a far more recognizable horse than Accelerate. Add in the factor Justify was an unraced 2-year-old and the achievement grows even more in stature.

You can tell I am going to vote for Justify on my ballot for Horse of the Year. It was a tough decision but not an overly difficult one.

Difficult was in 2009 when voters had to choose between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta for Horse of the Year. Rachel Alexandra was undefeated in eight starts that season. Zenyatta won all five of her starts including the Breeders’ Cup Classic beating males.

I actually made a protest vote in checking off both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta as co-champions. I got a phone call explaining that I couldn’t do that and had to pick one over the other. I said I can’t do that.

It would have been easier if they had settled things on the racetrack. But since that never happened to me they deserved to be co-Horses of the Year.

Thus my 2009 Horse of the Year vote was listed as “disqualified” and you can look it up in the record books.

I won’t have that issue this year. Justify did something that may never be equaled in going from an unraced 3-year-old to Triple Crown champion in less than four months time.

Richard Eng is the author of “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies”, an introductory book for newcomers to the sport of horse racing.  For two decades, he was the turf editor and handicapper for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He still handicaps the Southern California tracks and his picks are for sale at www.racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at rich_eng@hotmail.com and follow him on Twitter @richeng4propick and on Facebook.com.

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