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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).

New England’s last thoroughbred horse track winds down

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BOSTON — New England’s last thoroughbred horse track, Boston’s Suffolk Downs, is hosting its final live races this weekend, but it’s not clear what comes next for the industry, which continues to receive millions of dollars in casino tax subsidies.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, the company that operates the once grand, 84-year old track, has been running a handful of summertime races since losing out on its bid to build a resort casino on the property in 2014.

Two years ago, it sold the property – where the Depression-era champion Seabiscuit was discovered by the team that launched him into the limelight – to a real estate developer that plans to build apartments, condominiums and offices on the 161-acre property straddling Boston and Revere.

But Sterling Suffolk still wants to remain in the racing business and is betting on legislative approval this year to make that happen.

The company has proposed restoring the Great Barrington Fairgrounds near the New York state line while keeping its more lucrative simulcast and online betting operations in the Boston area. Current regulations don’t allow for a state-licensed race operator to split its operations this way.

The company is also seeking permission to tap into a special state fund for the horse racing industry in order to make improvements at the track. It also wants to extend the length of its racing license from one year to 10 years.

The Race Horse Development Fund is funded by gambling revenues from the state’s three casinos – Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield and Plainridge Park. But under state regulations, the money must be dedicated largely to horse racing purses and benefits for industry workers. Capital projects like improving a racetrack aren’t permitted uses.

“It doesn’t do the horsemen any good if there’s money building up in that fund and they don’t have any place to run and compete for it,” Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer for Sterling Suffolk, said Friday.

Restoring the Great Barrington track would cost up to $15 million and require extending the length of the half-mile track, as well as renovating the grandstand, he said. The track, which hasn’t hosted horse races since 1998, could be ready by next fall.

“Great Barrington works because it’s a more reasonable option than starting from scratch,” Tuttle said. “But it’s not really practical for us to take on the complete refurbishment of that property unless we have a longer term license and the certainty that comes with it.”

At least one industry group opposes the idea.

The Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association backs a separate bill that would require licensed racing operators host at least 60 race days a year. Sterling Suffolk’s bill would require at least one race day annually and Tuttle said the company only envisions hosting a handful of race days initially at Great Barrington.

“Not until we get a full time track will we see the benefits of the horse racing industry in terms of horse breeding, farms, agriculture and open space,” said Bill Lagorio, the organization’s president. “Folks are raising horses in New York and running them in Massachusetts for a few weeks. That’s not doing anything for this state.”

Tuttle says Lagorio’s group is an “outlier” and does not represent the majority of the region’s horse owners and breeders.

Two other industry groups – New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association – support the proposal, he noted.

The competing proposals and other bills related to the horse racing industry are being considered at a Statehouse hearing Monday.

In the meantime, casino revenues continue to accrue in the Race Horse Development Fund.

To date, nearly $56 million has been paid out — $21 million to the thoroughbred industry and another $34 million to the separate harness racing industry, according to Massachusetts Gaming Commission data.

The harness racing industry continues to run regular races at Plainridge Park’s track and has steadily spent down most of its funding. But the thoroughbred industry, which has long been anchored at Suffolk Downs, has nearly $13 million in its coffers, and growing.

Breeders’ Cup to stay at Santa Anita this year

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LOS ANGELES — The Breeders’ Cup world championships will remain at Santa Anita this fall after 30 horses died during the Southern California track’s recent meet.

The Breeders’ Cup board of directors unanimously decided to keep the two-day event at the track in Arcadia for a record 10th time on Nov. 1-2. The board made its decision at a meeting Thursday in Lexington, Kentucky.

Craig Fravel, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, says the ownership of Santa Anita along with other groups has made “meaningful and effective reforms” in recent months to improve safety. He says the Breeders’ Cup embraces those reforms and will devote time and energy in the coming months to further those efforts.

The 30 horse deaths occurred during Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet that began Dec. 26 and ended Sunday.