On Track With Johnny D: Just the Best


In the debate surrounding whether Accelerate or Justify should be voted a coveted gold statue as Thoroughbred racing’s 2018 Horse of the Year, count this writer squarely in Justify’s camp. He’s just the best. And here’s why…

Accelerate had an outstanding season February until November. He raced 7 times, once each month, except for in January, June, July, October and December. 5 races came at Southern California tracks—4 at Santa Anita and 1 at Del Mar. He shipped outside of California twice–to Arkansas for the Oaklawn Handicap and to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. He won 6 races; 5 Grade 1s. His lone defeat came by a mere neck against BC Mile winner City of Light in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap. No foe ever got within smelling distance again. In fact, in 6 other races, only 2 foes ever finished within 2 lengths of Accelerate—in the first and last races of the season. Prime Attraction lost to him by 1 ¾-lengths in the San Pasqual in February and Gunnevera got within 1 length of him in the Classic in November.

Clearly, Accelerate had a Horse-of-the-Year caliber season; the kind of campaign racing purists love because it extended throughout the year. However, there is one subtle omission on Accelerate’s 2018 resume: Why didn’t he begin the year in late January by chasing the nation’s richest purse in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park?

Good question. And there’s an equally good answer.

Accelerate’s trainer John Sadler, is a crafty horseman and his management of Accelerate has been impeccable. Sadler wasn’t going to begin an anticipated Eclipse Award campaign by shipping his horse nearly 3,000 miles to meet Gun Runner in a race they couldn’t win. Instead, Sadler (and Accelerate) remained ‘home’ at Santa Anita to take the Grade 2 San Pasqual February 3. Throughout the year, Accelerate played mostly ‘home’ games, comfortably within walking distance of his Santa Anita stall. Brilliant!

Southern California dirt racing is the best in the world. Horses leave the friendly confines of the San Gabriel Valley, circle the globe, and more often than not return with hardware. In case you hadn’t noticed, the 2018 Horse of the Year title will go to a SoCal-based dirt runner. Bob Baffert-trained, SoCal-based athletes dominate major Big Apple main track races like the Patriots do the NFL’s AFC East. Other SoCal trainers, Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Peter Miller, Sadler and youngster Michael McCarthy recently have enjoyed main track, cross-country shipping success. However, in 2018, Accelerate and City of Light aside, the SoCal handicap division was a bit weak.

There are past performances for 13 runners in the Eclipse Award voting packet for the Older Dirt Male category. Only 4 horses were based primarily in SoCal: Accelerate, City of Light, Pavel and West Coast. That begs the question: In winning 5 SoCal races, who did Accelerate defeat?

In the San Pasqual he handled Prime Attraction (winless in 2018); in the Santa Anita Handicap he dominated Mubtaahij (winless in 2018); in the Gold Cup he manhandled Dr. Dorr (a 3-time 2018 winner, including the Grade 2 Californian); in the Pacific Classic he romped over Pavel (1-for-7 in ’18 with a Grade 1 Stephen Foster win); and in the Awesome Again he bettered West Coast (winless in ’18). Beyond the Golden State, Accelerate lost to City of Light (multiple Grade 1 winner in ’18) in Arkansas and outfinished Gunnevera (an allowance winner in ’18) in Kentucky.

That roster of victims isn’t exactly Murderer’s Row. In fact, it may more closely approximate the Bum of the Month Club. But a horse can only beat those who line up against him and Accelerate whipped everyone he faced except for one by a neck and that horse ultimately won the BC Mile! Can’t knock that record.

A Horse-of-the-Year vote for Accelerate is a vote for a very talented horse, expertly managed by a superb trainer, and owned by Hronis Racing–a sporting and dedicated outfit that in a relatively short time has aggressively embraced the sport.

It’s good stuff. All of it.

And in this corner…wearing the white and green silks of…wait a minute…they switched ‘em, again. Red with yellow stars? No matter. Even covered in Baltimore mud they always came home first. 6-out-of-6 times. Mid-February until early June. 112 days. Count ‘em. Not much time. I’ve had rashes that lasted longer. Justify, we hard knew ya. Maiden, Allowance, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. That’s it. Unbeaten, untied and unscored upon. Completes a baker’s dozen of Triple Crown winners since 1919. Is the first in 135 years to do it without racing at 2.

Detractors denigrate Justify’s competition. They say he never beat older horses. True. Then again, he never faced them either. It’s difficult to imagine that he would have lost to any of the horses Accelerate defeated, although we’ll never know for sure.

Another knock against Justify is the quality of his 3-year-old foes. ‘A bad crop,’ they say, shaking heads like despondent farmers at harvest. In hindsight, they may have a point. The 2018 sophomore class did not distinguished itself, although one of them won the Haskell (Good Magic) and another took the Travers (Catholic Boy). Scam! Those races are restricted to 3-year-olds. No one in the group ever made a splash against older runners.

However, earlier in the year, approaching the Kentucky Derby, the same folks that now bash Justify’s classmates were promoting them as first rate—one of the most talented ever. Remember? 2-year-old champ and Blue Grass winner Good Magic, Holy Bull and Florida Derby winner Audible, unbeaten Magnum Moon, UAE Derby freak Mendelssohn and even late-developing Hofburg all had staunch pre-Derby supporters. As a group they seemed quite formidable.

Then Justify throttled ‘em in Louisville. In Baltimore, he grabbed Good Magic by the collar and shoved him against a wall. I think. Although it was difficult to tell through the fog. When matters cleared in the stretch, there was Justify all alone. Bravazo, who ultimately produced the most complete 3-year-old resume, closed well to throw a minor scare into the Baffert camp; all except Justify’s jockey Mike Smith, who later said his horse had plenty left. In the Belmont, again against Bravazo, the only co-survivor of the first two legs, and a few other ‘cowards,’ that had rested during the Charm City gathering, it simply was a case of ‘catch me if you can.’ They couldn’t.

For decades, prominent horsemen have explained that during the Triple Crown a horse doesn’t compete against other horses as much as he tangles with history, the calendar, the series itself—three Grade 1 races at different tracks and at assorted distances stuffed into a five-week pressure cooker!

That’s why winning the Triple Crown remains one of the greatest achievements in all of sport.

No doubt, American Pharoah’s Triple Crown sweep 3 years ago that ended a 37-year-long drought dimmed slightly the glow of Justify’s triumph. The latter’s sudden, seemingly premature retirement also caused some negative sentiment.

Not for me.

Yours truly won’t criticize an owner or breeder for removing a horse from competition in order to make a buck in the breeding shed. That’s the upside. Why they play the game in the first place. Figure roughly 100 covers at $200k a pop for a decade or so! Do the math. Then, in the face of that windfall, truthfully admit how ‘sporting’ you’d be. How you’d be thrilled to pay astronomical insurance premiums for the privilege of rolling the dice on the racetrack morning and afternoon. C’mon, man!

And, as my grandmother used to say, ‘God forbid, something happens.’ What then? Would a hefty insurance settlement really compensate for the loss of a champion and for the absence of his genes in future generations?

Bottom line: Accelerate delivered a gold statue-worthy season.

Unfortunately, in a brief, bright moment Justify rewrote the sport’s history.

Thanks for reading each week. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Race On!





On Track With Johnny D: Just the Best

On Track with Johnny D |