Justify's brief season enough for Horse of the Year
by DICK POWELL
I have an Eclipse Award vote, but I wait for the year to be finished before I fill out my ballot. There are still meaningful Grade 1 stakes left in the last six weeks of the 2018 calendar and not until all the major stakes races are run will I cast my vote. No early voting for me.
But this year, circumstances have generated a debate on who is the 2018 Horse of the Year: undefeated Triple Crown winner JUSTIFY or Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner ACCELERATE?
In year's past, a Triple Crown winner was a slam dunk for Horse of the Year; especially in the modern era where voting for all divisional champions has been unified. But, as great as Justify was, a few issues have come up that might have knocked him down a bit while Accelerate elevated.
Justify didn't make his career debut until February 18 of this year. It was so impressive that trainer Bob Baffert immediately announced that he had a plan to get him to the Kentucky Derby (G1). An allowance race over a muddy track going a two-turn mile was next up and he sailed through that, so now it was a question of going to the Arkansas Derby (G1) or Santa Anita Derby (G1) for his one chance to earn Derby eligibility points. When McKinzie was injured, Baffert chose the Santa Anita Derby, where he faced the very good Bolt d'Oro.
Over a dry but slow main track, Justify won easily and earned a monstrous BRIS speed rating of 114. He would go to the first Saturday in May with only three career starts and no starts as a two-year-old. No problem. Over a sloppy track, he stalked an insane pace, opened up on the field and held on to win by 2 1/2 lengths. The final time was slow but the track was not conducive to fast running times. The important thing was that he got to the wire first.
The day after the Derby, Baffert walked Justify out of his stall and, despite his assertions that he came out of the race great, he was not putting weight down on his left rear and when Baffert turned him to the left, the Derby winner stumbled in the rear. Baffert denied anything was wrong and attributed it to racing over the extremely wet track. But we know what we saw, and if the second leg of the Triple Crown was two weeks away, there's no way he would be coming back that quickly.
As luck would have it, the Pimlico main track was even worse than the one he just won the Derby over but Justify was gallant and courageous. He was challenged early and often by juvenile champion Good Magic, but Justify put him away while holding off the late charges of Bravazo and Tenfold.
With history within his grasp, Baffert worked him twice going into the Belmont Stakes (G1) and was taking no chances. The rest of his career could wait. And just to make sure, he entered Restoring Hope as a pace maker. Florent Geroux appeared to play games with the field aboard Restoring Hope on the first turn and there was Justify loose on the lead while others struggled in traffic.
With the Triple Crown achieved and being only the second horse to do it undefeated, there remained a lack of transparency on some matters. There was never an explanation of why Justify did not begin his career until February 18, the full extent of his condition the day after the Derby, the Belmont was conducted under murky circumstances, and then there was talk that nothing would be done until the business deal about where he would stand at stud be executed so there would be no racing in the summer and then the rest of the year.
We saw with our own eyes how great Justify was, but clouds surrounding him distracted from his brilliance. Still, an undefeated Triple Crown winner is a shoe-in for Horse of the Year honors.
But what if a good horse like Accelerate ran the table the second half of the year. By the time the Belmont was over, Accelerate already won the Santa Anita H. (G1) and Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1). His first start after the Belmont was in August at Del Mar and he crushed the Pacific Classic (G1) by over 12 lengths and earned a Justify-like BRIS speed rating of 114. He prepped for the Breeders' Cup Classic with a win in the Awesome Again (G1) and then capped off a terrific four-year-old season with a win in the Classic by a length in a wide trip from post 14.
Was it enough?
I don't think so.
I can't penalize Justify, the horse, for the people around him and the business decisions they made. They are not going to disclose specific injuries because it could affect his value. The decision to retire made some sense since if his appraised value is between $50 and $75 million, it would cost about 6% of that value range to keep him in training - $3 to $4.5 million in annual insurance premiums. As far as risk versus reward, it just doesn't make sense. Throw in a very complicated ownership where some partners were involved in the racing part and some were involved in the breeding part.
Imagine if American Pharoah did not retire after his 2015 season and continued racing in 2016. His insurance premium for that year would have been at least $3 million. He could have won the Dubai World Cup (G1) and the Breeders' Cup Classic again, he might have earned $10 million in purses that year. So, he starts the year out $3 million in the hole, does great and earns $10 million which gives him a four-year-old racing season where he clears $7 million.
Compare that with 200 mares American Pharoah covered at a stud fee between $100,000 and $200,000 for a live foal. Even using the low-end stud fee, that's $20 million in gross revenue minus about 20% for the mares that did not produce live foals resulting in about $16 million net revenue. If you take the high-end stud fee, double it to $32 million. Now, go look at how his first crop of yearling produced this year. Seventy yearlings were sold for an average of $453,273, which means that the breeders that paid that stud fee were amply rewarded.
The risk part of the equation is what if American Pharoah had a bad season and saw his stallion value decline? Is that worth it? A catastrophic injury is covered by insurance to a point but cannot make up for the revenue that a successful stallion career can generate. In the battle between risk and reward, risk comes in a distant second.
Justify has every opportunity to be a successful, high-end stallion so the decision to retire him was justifiable. I didn't like the way the injury issues were handled and the team tactics took away from his Belmont Stakes win (please note, Juddmonte did the same thing in Frankel's final race with a rabbit that not only pushed the pace but harassed the horse to beat in the Champions Stakes [G1]).
Yes, the big races that Accelerate won were Grade 1s, but too many came against modest company in California in races that have lost their luster. The Pacific Classic is a big deal as is the Breeders' Cup Classic, but, unfortunately for us, Justify was not around for the second half of the season. But I feel that his first half was enough.
By the way, why isn't MONOMOY GIRL in this conversation?
(Maryland Jockey Club/Jon Kral)