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Triple Crown winner Justify gets Horse of the Year

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Justify finished unbeaten, on and off the track.

The Triple Crown winner for 2018 added Horse of the Year to his resume, getting the nod over Accelerate for the biggest prize handed out at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night. Justify didn’t race as a 2-year-old, won all six of his starts last year and then was retired about a month after winning the Belmont Stakes because of an ankle injury.

So in a flash, he was gone.

But every Triple Crown winner since 1935 has also been declared Horse of the Year, and 2018 — even with Justify’s lone year of racing not even lasting four months, technically — would be no different. He won by a wide margin, getting 191 votes out of a possible 249, while Accelerate got 54.

“I’m so proud of Justify and I’m happy to see he is being rewarded for his unbelievable accomplishments in his run up to the Triple Crown,” said Bob Baffert, Justify’s trainer. “I’ve had the great fortune to be around some of the most talented horses and what Justify was able to do in such a short amount of time still takes my breath away.”

Justify — the third Horse of the Year trained by Baffert — also won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, unanimously, which was no surprise. Accelerate settled for the Eclipse as the top older dirt male, and the third Horse of the Year finalist Monomoy Girl was picked as the winner of the 3-year-old filly Eclipse.

Accelerate still has a chance for a huge win this weekend: He’s the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $9 million Pegasus World Cup dirt race, which will be his last before beginning a stud career. Accelerate won six of his seven starts in 2018, including wins in his last four starts — all of them Grade 1 events, capped by the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“This horse had an unbelievable season,” said Juan Leyva, the assistant trainer under John Sadler for Accelerate. “You can’t take anything away from Justify. He’s a Triple Crown winner. But the year this horse put up, I mean, any other year there’s no question he’s Horse of the Year. … Obviously, my vote would be for Accelerate. You don’t see years like this that often.”

Accelerate’s connections didn’t leave with just one trophy. Hronis Racing LLC, Accelerate’s owner, also won the Eclipse in that category — its first as the top owner in the sport.

“This is a little boy’s dream come true,” said Kosta Hronis, who shares the ownership of Hronis Racing with his brother, Peter.

Chad Brown won his third consecutive Eclipse Award as the top trainer, making him only the sixth person to win that many in a row and putting him alongside Baffert, Todd Pletcher, D. Wayne Lukas, Robert Frankel, Laz Barrera. Baffert was a finalist this year, after guiding Justify to the Triple Crown — Baffert’s second.

Still, Brown got the nod again.

“It’s a great honor and we take it very seriously,” Brown said.

Irad Ortiz Jr. won his first Eclipse as the top jockey, keeping the award in the family — his younger brother, Jose Ortiz, won last year.

“I want to dedicate this trophy to a very special person,” Irad Ortiz said. “My brother dedicated to me last year, and I want to dedicate it to him. Love you bro.”

Other Eclipse winners included Weston Hamilton (apprentice jockey), Jaywalk (2-year-old filly), Game Winner (2-year-old male), Unique Bella (older dirt female), Roy H (male sprinter), Shamrock Rose (female sprinter), Stormy Liberal (male turf horse), Sistercharlie (female turf horse), Zenjabeel (steeplechase horse) and John D. Gunther (top breeder).

Second horse in 4 days dies at Santa Anita

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Santa Anita had its second horse death in four days when a gelding pulled up during a race Sunday and was euthanized a day later.

Twenty-five horses have now died in racing or training at the Southern California track since Dec. 26.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Spectacular Music was running in a six-furlong maiden claiming race when the jockey pulled the horse up on the backstretch shortly after leaving the gate.

The horse was taken off the course with a pelvis injury and the decision to euthanize him was made Monday morning.

On Friday, a 3-year-old horse broke down with a shoulder injury while galloping and was euthanized at the track.

Santa Anita is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 1-2. It’s considered the biggest two-day event in U.S. horse racing.

Preakness winner War of Will likely to run in Belmont

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BALTIMORE (AP) Owner Gary Barber called trainer Mark Casse for the fourth time in 11 hours since War of Will won the Preakness.

Only this time, Casse was in the middle of holding court with reporters the morning after his first Triple Crown victory.

“All’s good and we’re going to the Belmont?” Casse said to Barber with a Cheshire cat grin. “I was kidding. I was making that up.”

Well, not totally.

Assuming all goes well in the coming weeks, Casse said “there’s an extremely good shot” War of Will goes to the Belmont Stakes on June 8 in New York. If he wins, he’d be the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to fall short in the Kentucky Derby before capturing the Preakness and Belmont and would be the front-runner for 3-year-old horse of the year.

“It’s the third leg of the Triple Crown, who doesn’t want to win it?” Casse said Sunday. “There are only three Triple Crown races, and they’re pretty important. I think if you can do it you should do it. …

“That’s what we do. We run.”

Those watching the Preakness saw a horse run the entire race and then some after throwing off his jockey out of the starting gate, a scene that – once it was clear rider John Velazquez was OK – served as a reminder of how much thoroughbreds love to run. Bodexpress provided a memorable spectacle as War of Will fulfilled his potential at Pimlico.

The Belmont is another substantial test for the tough and talented War of Will because it’s a third race in six weeks and is the longest of the Triple Crown races at 1+ miles.

There won’t be a Kentucky Derby rematch with Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interfering with War of Will, or Country House, who was placed first and since been sidelined by illness. And two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert said he probably won’t take Improbable to the Belmont after finishing out of the money in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as the favorite.

But War of Will could have to contend with Derby returners Tacitus, Master Fencer and perhaps Baffert’s Game Winner, along with Preakness surprise second-place finisher Everfast, third-place runner Owendale and ninth-place Signalman. Trainer Bill Mott ruled out Country House but is planning to take Tacitus to the Belmont and figures the gray colt will have no problem in a significantly longer race.

“He should handle it fine,” Mott said by phone Saturday. “My guess was that he’d handle the Derby distance fine, which he did. I was pleased. I think it goes the same for the Belmont. I think it’s within his grasp.”

If the Preakness had more than an extra quarter-mile, closers Everfast and Owendale might’ve put a scare into War of Will on Saturday. Everfast was a late entry by trainer Dale Romans three days before the race and opened at 50-1 but showed he might be a good long-distance runner.

“We almost had it,” Everfast jockey Joel Rosario said. “He ran great. We have a great shot at the Belmont.”

Tacitus, Everfast and Owendale will be strong challengers, but this should be War of Will’s Belmont to lose. Had he not endured such a rough trip in and been interfered with at Churchill Downs on May 4, there could be another wave of Triple Crown talk going on right now about a third winner in five years.

But Casse isn’t thinking about that, still grateful War of Will avoided going down in the Derby and was able to rebound and run well in the Preakness. He’ll monitor the horse back at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky, to make sure a sore foot and his energy level are good enough to run in the Belmont on a three-week turnaround.

Casse can’t predict how War of Will responds this time, but he knows what it would mean if the horse comes out on top once again.

“He’s just an athlete,” Casse said. “It would just show that he’s tough and able to overcome things.”