By Dick Jerardi
When I left Belmont Park on the evening on June 9, 2018 after seeing and writing about the 13th Triple Crown winner, I was also certain I had seen the 2018 Horse of the Year.
What Justify had just done was unprecedented. Exactly 111 days after the first start of his career on Feb. 18, Justify had finished off the Triple Crown with a dominating wire-to-wire performance. Maiden win, allowance win, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes.
What horse could do that? What horse would even be given the chance to try? The answer on both counts was Justify.
What I did not know that evening was that we would never see Justify run again. It was announced two months later that the horse was to be retired to stud.
I felt a little cheated. If Justify could do all that with such a demanding schedule, what could he do with more time between races? I felt certain we would have seen something even more spectacular, but, alas, we will never know.
What I also did not know the night of the Belmont was that another horse was in the midst of a campaign that, in almost any other year, would guarantee Horse of the Year.
When Accelerate arrived in the starting gate for the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, the horse had swept the three major Southern California Grade I stakes for older horses — the Santa Anita Handicap, the Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes and Pacific Classic. He had also won the Grade I Awesome Again and the Grade II San Pasqual. His lone loss was a second (by a neck) in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap to City of Light, a horse that had dominated the Dirt Mile earlier on the Breeders’ Cup card.
Accelerate’s season had begun Feb. 3 and ended Nov. 3. It was a classic Horse of the Year campaign. If he could win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, there would be a legitimate Horse of the Year debate. Accelerate won it by one length. And the debate was on.
It will be settled on the evening of Thursday, Jan. 24, at Gulfstream Park as the Eclipse Awards are handed out in a ceremony that will honor horses and humans in various categories before the Horse of the Year announcement.
There are 271 votes among the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters (NTWAB), Daily Racing Form (DRF) and National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA). A total of 249 ballots were turned in. One of those, as a NTWAB member, was mine.
I voted for Justify.
If somebody voted for Accelerate, I can’t really argue. When a horse can hold his form from February to November and ends the season by beating the strongest field of horses assembled all year; that is a powerful statement.
I understand that Justify only raced against three-year-olds. I also know now that this was not a particularly strong group of three-year-olds. For me, it came down to this: if you said to anybody in the sport when 2018 began, could you imagine a horse is going to be 111 days between his first start and a successfully-completed Triple Crown run, everybody would have said it was impossible. I would not have argued. Then, I saw it happen, the impossible becoming possible.
And that is why Justify was my 2018 Horse of the Year.
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