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).

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”

Arabian Knight earns Baffert record 6th win in Southwest

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Arabian Knight won the $750,000 Southwest Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths at Oaklawn, giving Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his record sixth victory in the race.

The colt came into the Kentucky Derby prep as one of the most highly touted 3-year-olds in the country. Arabian Knight, who was purchased for $2.3 million as a 2-year-old, was making his second career start and first on a sloppy track in front of 27,000 fans in Arkansas.

“These good horses are hard to come by,” said Baffert, who was on hand in Hot Springs. “We’ve had a lot of luck here at Oaklawn, so it was nice to have a horse like this.”

However, Arabian Knight was ineligible to earn the Kentucky Derby qualifying points awarded to the winner because Baffert has been suspended for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The penalty, which ends shortly after this year’s Derby on May 6, stems from Medina Spirit’s medication violation after the colt won the 2021 Derby and was later disqualified. Baffert is challenging the ban in court.

Ridden by John Velazquez, Arabian Knight ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:43.50 and paid $2.80 to win. He is 2-0 and has career earnings of $544,275.

“He ran 1:43 and change, that’s racehorse time and he did it without taking a deep breath,” Baffert said. “This was a big effort.”

Red Route One closed from last to finish second, and Frosted Departure was third. Sun Thunder was fourth, followed by Jace’s Road, Corona Bolt, El Tomate and Western Ghent.

At Gulfstream in Florida, Baffert’s entry Defunded finished second in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup, beaten by 4 1/2 lengths by Art Collector on Saturday.