October 16, 2021

Triple Crown sweep should be no rubber stamp for Horse of the Year

Accelerate was crowned Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) champion beneath Joel Rosario at Churchill Downs on November 3, 2018 (c) Jamie Newell/Horsephotos.com

Supporters of Justify‘s Horse of the Year candidacy often note that the electorate has never turned its back on a Triple Crown winner for the honor since proper year-end polling commenced in 1936.

True enough. However, it is interesting to note that even four decades ago voters were not so keen as you might expect on being virtual rubber stamps for Triple Crown winners who wouldn’t attempt to run against or couldn’t reproduce similar form versus open company.

Seattle Slew, who also swept the Triple Crown while undefeated, registered a 104.5 to 84.5 win in 1977 Horse of the Year balloting over champion older male Forego. Horse of the Year the three previous seasons, Forego turned in a relatively weak campaign in 1977 while hindered in part by staggering weight imposts and his own fragility. Despite that, a large segment of the electorate were inclined to default to the older horse with proven form in unrestricted races.

Seattle Slew did lose once that year to a horse he had beaten previously in the Preakness (G1), but 55% can hardly be considered a landslide margin given the weakness of his main opposition. A shift of a mere 11 votes would have produced a different result.

One year later, Affirmed won only a plurality of votes in Horse of the Year balloting. He earned 90.5 (44%) votes to 78.25 (38%) for Seattle Slew and 37 (18%) for Exceller. A majority wanted no part of that Triple Crown winner as Horse of the Year, but they failed to rally around a single alternative.

Justify doesn’t carry some of the baggage Seattle Slew and Affirmed did, but then again neither does presumptive champion older male Accelerate‘s record look as so-so as Forego’s. There will also be no equine equivalent of Theodore Roosevelt, George Wallace, or Ross Perot preventing one or the other from gaining majority support.

There surely remains a few veterans from those years that still have a ballot, but the composition of the electorate is generally different individually if not philosophically. It will be interesting to see the final results of a clear, unadulterated battle between an undefeated Triple Crown winner with no record of achievement in open company versus a conventional and consistently dominant older male champion whose sole setback during the season was avenged.

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If you asked an Eclipse Award voter what their personal criteria for a Horse of the Year is, would they be able to articulate it? Or would they simply paraphrase the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart and say “I know one when I see one”?

I long ago spelled out my criteria during the divisive races of 2009 and 2010, and I like to think I’ve maintained intellectual consistency since then and throughout the time I’ve had the privilege of having a ballot. Here are my prior Horse of the Year selections:

1999 Victory Gallop
2000 Tiznow
2001 Tiznow
2002 Left Bank
2003 Mineshaft
2004 Ghostzapper
2005 Saint Liam
2006 Invasor
2007 Curlin
2009 Rachel Alexandra
2010 Blame
2011 Cape Blanco
2012 Wise Dan
2013 Wise Dan
2014 Shared Belief
2015 American Pharoah
2016 Arrogate
2017 Gun Runner

One thing every single one of those selections had in common was at least one graded stakes win against open company, for me a minimum requirement to be considered. Charismatic, Point Given, Azeri, Zenyatta, and California Chrome (2014) — no thanks.

The Triple Crown is a supremely difficult, rare, and terrific achievement, but there has to be (and frankly is) more to a season and the sport than just an approximate four miles of action spread over three days that many of the best horses in the country are excluded from participating in. If I am mistaken and that is indeed not the case, well, you can draw your own (various) conclusions.

As can be deduced, the name of Accelerate will be added to the list above.