Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
The Eclipse Award for North American Horse of the Year is perhaps the most prestigious award in all of horse racing. It honors a horse’s performance in a given year judged against all other horses, no matter their age or gender, their distance or surface preference, or what they may or may not have done in years past. The Horse of the Year honor has been given to nearly all of the all-time great champions of U.S. racing. A number of horses have even won the award in multiple years. Kelso won it five times in a row.
The award is given by the National Turf Writers Association, by a vote of their membership, along with the Daily Racing Form and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and dates back to 1971 (the Daily Racing Form began honoring yearly champions in 1936). The choice voters are faced with isn’t always crystal clear. There have been years where the vote was close – such as 1977 when Seattle Slew beat Forego by a mere 21 votes. In 1984, John Henry won the honor over Slew o’ Gold only after the vote went to a second tiebreaker, and even then only by fewer than 20 votes.
This year’s voting may prove to be another close one, as there are a number of intriguing choices, and two horses in particular that stand out. Justify became just the second horse since 1978 to win the coveted Triple Crown and had a perfect 6-for-6 record on the year. And Accelerate won six of seven starts, including a streak of four straight Grade 1 wins that ended with the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The debate over which of these two horses should win Horse of the Year has been spirited since the Breeders’ Cup Classic earlier this month. And the backers of each horse are vocal and passionate. For those of you who are uncomfortable with the intensity of the debate online, allow me to dispassionately break down for you the most common arguments and tropes being lobbed in this battle.
1. It’s called Horse of the YEAR, not Horse of the FEBRUARY TO JUNE.
This is a reference to the fact that Justify, who won the Triple Crown this year, was retired afterward and did not compete in any other races, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Triple Crown was once considered the most difficult feat in horse racing, but the fact that American Pharoah broke the long drought between winners only three years ago has clearly robbed Justify of some of the shine that came with his predecessor’s breathlessly-anticipated win.
Oridinarily, winning a Triple Crown is enough to earn a horse this award. Every winner of the Triple Crown has been awarded Horse of the Year since the award was first officially given in 1936. But the anti-Justify crowd points to the fact that the three races of the Triple Crown make up half of his entire racing career. Justify raced a total of six times – not just in 2018, in his entire career. His entire body of work consists of six races from February to June of this year, spanning from debut win in a maiden race to retirement. They argue that this is not enough races to really crown Justify as Horse of the Year.
Never mind, I suppose, that the horse won all six of those races. Never mind that the other two horses that many from the anti-Justify crowd want to win Horse of the Year, Accelerate and Monomoy Girl, each ran in a total of seven races in 2018. One could argue back that it isn’t Horse of the LIFETIME but Horse of the YEAR. Having one more race in 2018 seems like it is hardly enough to really make a lot of hay about Justify’s six starts.
2. Who did he beat?
This is another anti-Justify argument you’ll see from time to time in these debates. The implication here is that by racing in restricted fields against only 3-year-olds (and, these types will often tell you, a weak crop of 3-year-olds at that), Justify’s unbeaten record isn’t as impressive as Accelerate’s 2018 record of six wins in seven starts.
This argument may have some validity to it, especially considering that Accelerate finished 2018 with a win in the Breeder’s Cup Classic against a very tough field. If Justify had finished out the season without getting injured, he would have surely raced in the Classic against Accelerate and there would be no debate. Alas, we have to wonder what the result may have been.
But the “who did he beat?” argument is often used in horse racing, just as it is employed in all of sports when trying to determine something subjective like whether Michael Jordan was better than LeBron James. The problem is, in this case, that the horse didn’t get to choose his opponents. Justify beat all that tried him. It is impossible to know if he would have beaten an even better opponent than the ones he had. What is known is that no horse has ever beaten him in a race – ever. That’s worth something, even if it is only six races.
And a final point worth mentioning: one of Justify’s six races was the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, which drew a field of the 20 best 3-year-olds in a race unlike any other in the entire world. Winning the Kentucky Derby is a major accomplishment for any horse. To go on and win the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on the heels of it says something about the horse, no matter the field. If it didn’t, then it wouldn’t have taken so long to see a horse win the Triple Crown. Surely there have been other supposedly “weak crops” of 3-year-olds in the past 40 years?
3. It isn’t a popularity contest.
The Eclipse Awards are given out based on the votes of a couple of hundred turf writers, handicappers, and NTRA members and those votes are based on nothing more than the voters’ own subjective opinions of what qualifies as “outstanding.” So the winning horse will be the one who was favored by the most voters. That is, literally, a popularity contest. But you know what isn’t a popularity contest? A horse race. Justify, Accelerate, and Monomoy Girl have won a lot of those. And for those clear, objective victories, their owners were rewarded with tons of money and shiny trophies. The horses were probably given a peppermint or something. But the point is, the horses with objective accomplishments over their peers are rewarded for those accomplishments. This isn’t one of those things. This is something else.
You could make an argument that Horse of the Year could be awarded based on some kind of objective criteria, like a points system or something. But the folks who give out the Eclipse Awards don’t want to do that. They want an opportunity to vote for and reward their own favorites, and that’s their privilege.
4. Don’t be sexist.
Monomoy Girl was clearly the dominant filly this year, finishing first in all seven of her races (though she was disqualified and placed second in the Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing). Six of those seven races were Grade 1 stakes and the other was a Grade 2 stakes. She raced at six different tracks in one year. Her year mirrors Accelerate’s in every way but one – she only raced against females, while he competed in 3-year-old races open to males and females. This is an important distinction, and falls into the whole “who did she beat” category. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. None of the horses Monomoy Girl and Accelerate raced against competed in the same races. Deciding who had the most “outstanding” year doesn’t mean you are choosing which horse would theoretically beat the other horse in a race. You’re judging that horse’s year based on who they were racing against.
One could make an argument that Monomoy Girl’s campaign was so similar to Accelerate’s, yet she won at more tracks and was never beaten at the finish (you have to go with me here on the DQ, OK?). She defeated 14 horses in the Longines Kentucky Oaks. I suppose the argument here is that if you’re willing to consider Justify and Accelerate, you have to include Monomoy Girl in the discussion, since her six wins and her five Grade 1s check all the same boxes as do Justify and Accelerate. Isn’t it time we stop giving short shrift to our fillies and mares for running in restricted races, if we don’t give the same treatment to colts who run in races restricted to 3-year-olds?
While it may seem like I’m supporting Justify here, the truth is that if I had a vote I’d vote for Monomoy Girl. Not just because she deserves it, but because I’ve long been known to use my franchise to register a protest vote in the service of making a broader point. Or to just cause trouble. It’s really in the eye of the beholder. At the end of the day, when I look at these three horses with the only criteria that matters, how much money I won on them, I am duty bound to vote for Monomoy Girl, an easy single in the Longines Distaff on Breeders’ Cup Saturday who carried all my multi-race tickets over the line.