Justify or Accelerate? Breeders’ Cup Result Stirs Horse of the Year Debate

Accelerate and connections celebrate in the winner’s circle after the horse captured his fifth Grade 1 stakes of the year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 3. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Almost as soon as Accelerate flashed across the Churchill Downs finish line one length ahead of gallant Gunnevera in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last Saturday, the Horse of the Year debate began.

For voters who began the day believing 6-for-6 Triple Crown winner Justify locked up the honor last summer with a front-running victory in the June 9 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets before his retirement in late July, Accelerate’s season-ending exclamation point almost surely forced them to pause.

And for voters who began the day feeling uneasy about some elements involving Justify – who became the 13th Triple Crown winner but is hardly the most impressive of that historic group when weighing his career against other immortals – Accelerate’s cherry-on-top performance could swing them into his camp.

Kosta Hronis, who owns Accelerate with his brother, Peter, did his best to campaign for a 5-year-old that kept on ticking from the third day in February through the third day in November, registering five Grade 1 triumphs and taking six of seven races overall.

Accelerate wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic. (Eclipse Sportswire)

“They’ve been saying all along that he had to win the Classic to be in the conversation. He won the Classic,” Hronis said during the post-race news conference. “And then I read somewhere where it said maybe he did this all on the wrong year. But maybe Justify won the Triple Crown in the wrong year.”

In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, the Breeders’ Cup Classic resonates with voters more than any other race. Understandably, there is the desire to reward horses that have the grit and durability to stand up to the long, arduous season.

As Hronis said of Accelerate, “This horse is special. He’s showed up every time. He’s danced every dance. He’s been solid. This is Horse of the Year. It’s a body of work.”

Accelerate reserved his best performances for the grandest stages. He ruled the March 10 Santa Anita Handicap Presented by San Miguel Indian Bingo and Casino by 5 ½ lengths. He launched a four-wide bid to wrap up the May 26 Gold Cup at Santa Anita by 4 ¼ lengths. He demolished the field by 12 ½ lengths in the Aug. 18 TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Although Accelerate missed by a neck to subsequent Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner City of Light in the April 14 Oaklawn Handicap, he eliminated any doubt about his ability to succeed outside of California by overcoming post 14 in the Classic at Churchill Downs.

Voters have to appreciate owners such as Kosta and Peter Hronis. Although Accelerate won just once in eight starts as a 4-year-old, they agreed with trainer John Sadler that the best was yet to come and stayed the course.

“We had opportunities to sell him and take him off (the track),” Kosta said. “But I think we owed it to him, we owed it to the industry, to keep him on the track and let him do what he was born to do. He was born to be a racehorse.

“He was healthy. He was happy. He loved being out there and, as long as that was what he wanted to do, that’s what he was going to do.”

Justify makes history in the Belmont Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

That sentiment becomes all the more commendable when Accelerate is compared to Justify, a shooting star if ever there was one. His spectacular 112-day career cried out for more, but there was no more when his owners determined that nagging filling in his left front ankle made a fall campaign impossible. He was retired on July 25.

History will struggle to assess Justify, just as Horse of the Year voters may be struggling now. This is a 3-year-old, after all, that was never tested against older horses. Justify joins Count Fleet (1943) as the only Triple Crown winners that did not compete after the Belmont Stakes. Count Fleet, though, already had made 21 starts.

As uncomfortable as it may be to salute Justify as Horse of the Year for his accomplishments in less than half a year, compelling elements to his meteoric rise cannot be ignored. He dispelled the Curse of Apollo with an authoritative 2 ½-length victory on the first Saturday in May, joining Apollo (1882) as the only horses to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve after going unraced at 2.

He withstood awful conditions in the mud and fog at Pimlico Race Course to hold off Bravazo in the Preakness Stakes. Even if accusations that Justify's stablemate Restoring Hope was used to run interference in the Belmont Stakes are taken into account, there was no sense that any rival was about to menace. He secured the historic sweep at Belmont Park by 1 ¾ convincing lengths.

Justify overcame a record 35 opponents during his Triple Crown run. War Admiral had faced the greatest number of challengers before that, turning back 32 foes in the three races in 1932.

Accelerate is the feel-good story. Justify is the goods.

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