Jockey Mike Smith aboard Kentucky Derby winner Justify - Coady Photography

Jockey Mike Smith aboard Kentucky Derby winner Justify – Coady Photography

Accelerate winning the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) - Coady Photography

Accelerate winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) – Coady Photography

When Justify crossed the wire first in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) to complete a rare sweep of the coveted Triple Crown, most racing fans assumed that the battle for 2018 Horse of the Year honors had already been won.

In the years since formal voting for Horse of the Year began in 1936, every Triple Crown winner has claimed the Horse of the Year title, establishing a precedent that the Triple Crown trumps all else in North American racing. Yet here we are, six months after the Belmont, and a passionate Horse of the Year debate is currently raging throughout the industry. And in my opinion, the upcoming vote could be among the most significant in the history of the Eclipse Awards.

The reason Horse of the Year is even up for debate is because the five-year-old Accelerate enjoyed a banner year, arguably the best single season by an older male since Cigar in 1995. Accelerate posted Grade 1 wins in the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup at Santa Anita, Pacific Classic, Awesome Again Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic—it could be decades before another horse sweeps that same series—and he also threw in a victory in the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) and a narrow runner-up effort in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) behind the future Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) winner City of Light.

Hence, the passionate discussions. On the one hand, how can Justify be denied Horse of the Year honors? The Triple Crown is the undisputed highlight of the racing year, a series of three high-class events that draw national attention to a niche sport. Even the most casual of racing fans are familiar with the Triple Crown, and it is often said that sweeping the three races is among the most difficult feats in all of sports.

On the other hand, you can argue that Eclipse Award voters are in a position to chart the course of racing’s future—to establish, through these year-end awards, what feats are considered championship-worthy. It is a constant complaint of racing fans that horses retire too soon and no longer partake in the extensive campaigns that defined racing’s great champions of the past. As brilliant as Justify was, he was sidelined with a minor injury after the Belmont Stakes and retired to stud having made just six career starts between February and June—by far the briefest career of any Triple Crown winner in history.

With Accelerate, voters have an opportunity to speak their mind about racing’s future. Accelerate danced almost every dance from February through November, and even more significantly, he hasn’t had a major break from racing or training since his debut in April 2016. Over the last three years, he’s made a minimum of seven starts per season while competing in three Breeders’ Cup races and showcasing his stamina by sweeping four of the five unrestricted Grade 1 dirt races in North America. Accelerate has been tough, talented, and sound. Racing would benefit from having more horses like Accelerate.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer for who should be Horse of the Year. Justify and Accelerate are both deserving candidates, and in most years, either one would be a unanimous or near-unanimous choice for the title.

But that’s why this vote is so significant. If Justify wins, it will reiterate the long-held tradition that the Triple Crown is the pinnacle of the sport, and since the Triple Crown attracts the most national attention to the sport each year, I think that’s an important precedent to uphold.

Then again, if Accelerate wins Horse of the Year, it will set a new precedent that could forever shatter the history-driven guidelines that have traditionally governed the Eclipse Award recipients. It would signal a shift in the outlook of voters, sending a message that durability and breadth of campaign are more important than pure brilliance, even if that brilliance culminates with a Triple Crown sweep. It could pave the way for rewarding horses with workmanlike, year-long campaigns over horses with flashier, but significantly shorter or abbreviated campaigns. Isn’t that what racing fans are constantly asking for?

I’m still debating who I will vote for, but my main takeaway so far is this: I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that the upcoming Horse of the Year vote could shape the future of the Eclipse Awards, and maybe the future of racing.