Would Justify Winning Horse of the Year help Racing?

Would Justify Winning Horse of the Year help Racing?

By Carly Schuerger

Twitter: @cantbeatsugar

The NTRA Eclipse Awards have always been a great way to reward and give recognition to the top horses of the year in American horse racing. The most highlighted award, Horse of the Year, has always brought up some arguments about which horse should receive such an award. Many make their decision based
on which horse was faster, more accomplished, or their personal love and fandom for a horse. There are many reasons why, but there is, of course, no exact definition or specific criteria needed to receive the Horse of the Year award.

This year’s Horse of the Year award is exceptionally special. After Justify became the first horse in 136 years to break the “Curse of Apollo” by winning the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two year old, he also went on to do something even more spectacular. He became the 13th Triple Crown winner. With these incredible accomplishments, Horse of the Year seemed inevitable for Justify. That is until the owners decided to retire him due to a swollen ankle. This occurred during his training leading up to the Grade I Haskell Stakes. This would be Justify’s first start after his Triple Crown win. Despite this setback, Justify’s sights for Horse of the Year was still in his favor due to inconsistency in the three year old division throughout the remainder of the year.

But then Accelerate, the dominant figure of the older horse division, came into the picture. Accelerate was a looming presence leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic after he had an exceptional 2018 season with five wins(three of them Grade I races) and one second place finish to City Of Light, who would later win the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Accelerate would face his toughest competition that year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Coming off as the 5/2 post time favorite, Accelerate went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and really put himself in the conversation of receiving the Horse of the year award over Justify.  

Based on the media and TVG interviews of some of the Eclipse Award voters, Justify seems likely to win Horse of the Year over Accelerate. But how would Justify receiving this award affect racing in the future? We have seen an ongoing trend of top racehorses retiring early due to breeding profits, causing a great decrease in competition within American racing. As any sports watcher knows, good competition brings popularity- something American horse racing is extremely lacking in at this time. Horse racing has always seen an increase in viewers and popularity
when quality horses race. The more competitive horses run, the higher the popularity and the more the sport benefits. This has been seen with the effects of Zenyatta, California Chrome, Winx, Lava Man, and Beholder, just to name a few in recent years. All of these horses have raced longer than a four year old season and have improved the popularity of the sport due to the amazing accomplishments they have achieved. But, no accomplishment in American horse racing, is as rare and as popular as winning the Triple Crown. Triple Crown winning horses always raise the ratings far more than any other horse, especially when they continue to race. In 2015, American Pharaoh broke the 37 year drought by becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner. He later went on to win the Haskell Stakes and finish a thrilling second to Keen Ice in the historical Travers Stakes. He later went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic with ease at the end of the year. While having a successful campaign and raising horse racing ratings, American Pharaoh would retire to stud soundly after the Classic becoming the first Triple Crown winner to not race longer than a 3 year old(except for Count Fleet, who sustained a career ending injury heading into his 4 year old season).

With American Pharaoh retired, ratings dropped once again until the next great horse came along. This inconsistency in the sports competition is one of the main factors American racing isn’t doing as well as it has in the past. In Justify’s case, he did not race after the Triple Crown, unlike American Pharaoh. From a breeding standpoint, Justify was worth $75 million in breeding rights, more than any horse could earn by just racing. This, of course, puts the owners in a position where there would be no point in racing Justify any longer. Although the owners were committed to continue his racing career for the rest of the year, it only took a minor injury, an ankle filling, to take him to the breeding shed. As a result of this, the biggest races in American racing after the Triple Crown, despite having competitive races, had a decrease in viewership. One can argue that the low viewership has attributed to racings downfall for more than a decade. Of course nothing can be blamed on anyone for the unfortunate occurrence of Justify’s injury. Many people believe this was
the right move for the owners to retire Justify. The injury Justify sustained was never a career ending one and it was definitely possible for him to race again. If Justify were given more time off and went back into training, it probably wouldn’t be enough
time to get a prep race in before the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. But there would have been plenty of time (at least five months) to train and get a prep race in for the $9 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in January. This race was specifically designed by the Stronach Group to keep quality horses racing longer and increase publicity in American horse racing.

The main point of it all is the fact that Justify could have continued racing, therefore increasing viewership. And as I said before, higher viewership is what horse racing needs right now. Justify’s owners contributed to their self-profit rather than contributing to the sport. That alone is hurting the sport. That should never be rewarded. If the racing industry continues to reward people for
making decisions that hurt racing, owners will continue to retire their horses early.

Obviously Horse of the Year is awarded to the horse, not the owner. However, last time I checked, the owners and connections walk on stage to give a thank you speech after
they have received the award and take the profit, not the horse. What Justify did was much more than greatness, and, in my opinion, was much greater than any of Accelerate’s accomplishments. But if we continue to allow ourselves to praise people within the industry that choose to benefit themselves over the sport they make a living, racing will continue to decay. It would be best to vote against Justify for Horse of the Year. Not because what he accomplished wasn’t enough, but because racing will continue to decline if he does. My personal concern, and definitely the concern of many others, is that we may never see another Triple Crown winner race any longer than 3 years old, or any longer than the Triple Crown.

This year’s Eclipse Awards will define racing’s future. It will test how the industry tolerates people who put their personal interests before the racing industry. If Justify receives this award, it will continue the pattern of Triple Crown winners never racing as long as they use to, ultimately decreasing viewership and weakening American horse racing. This is not a matter of awards, but a matter of what is best for American horse racing.

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