LEXINGTON, Ky. — As far as great horse racing debates go, this one is civil and wholly welcome. Is Flightline one of the sport’s all-time greats? Should he be regarded alongside Secretariat, Man o’ War and a couple of dozen others who have captured the public’s imagination throughout the years?
Those who don’t love or play the horses may answer with the question, “Who is Flightline?” Fair enough. He is among the fastest horses in history, and certainly one most of the sporting public has never heard of.
Flightline, a 4-year-old colt, is undefeated in his five races, running away from his opponents by a combined margin of 62 ¾ lengths at distances starting at a six-furlong sprint and reaching a mile and a quarter, which is considered the classic distance for American thoroughbreds.
It was after Flightline’s most recent race, in the Pacific Classic, however, when talk of his greatness began sizzling.
In less than two minutes at Del Mar in Southern California, Flightline ran away from five accomplished challengers, seizing an early 10-length lead before stretching it to 19 and a quarter lengths at the wire even as his rider, Flavien Prat, powered him down to an easy lope well before the finish line.
Even the most cynical horseplayers wondered if Pegasus had just escaped Greek mythology and streaked across their television screens.
For John Sadler, Flightline’s trainer, two things are certain — the colt is the best that he has ever trained and his race in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar was one for the ages.
“I think you certainly have to rate his race in the Pacific Classic as one of the great performances any thoroughbred has ever run,” said Sadler, whose horses have won more than 2,700 races. “As far as where he stands, that’s up for the pundits.”
On Saturday around 5:40 p.m., Flightline will take on seven horses in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland in Kentucky. At 3 to 5 odds in the morning line, smart money says Flightline will prevail.
Still, a stout bunch will try to bring Flightline back to earth. Life is Good has won nine of his 11 races. Olympiad is six for his last seven. This year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Rich Strike, and the 2022 Travers champ Epicenter are formidable 3-year-old challengers.
The race promises to be great television (NBC) and, if Flightline prevails, offer a moment of triumph as well as tension for a sport desperate to return to mainstream relevance.
For the colt’s owners, a tough decision looms: Retire Flightline to the breeding shed and at minimum $60 million guarantee, or run him next year as a 5-year-old in the hopes of bolstering the argument that he is one of the sport’s all-time greats?
“We have a once-in-a-generation horse — a Picasso, a masterpiece, that you don’t see too often,” said Terry Finley, the founder and president of West Point Thoroughbreds, which owns Flightline in partnership with Hronis Racing, Siena Farm, Summer Wind Equine and Woodford Racing. “We’ll see how the Classic goes and weigh our options.”
Either way, the ownership group should be rewarded for the patience it demonstrated in managing a star-crossed colt’s stop-and-start journey to the racetrack.
Flightline, the son of Tapit, was a regally bred yearling when he entered the auction ring at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale in 2019. He was muscled, balanced and poised beyond his skittish age. Finley signed the $1 million sales ticket, but partners quickly came aboard.
Even as a toddler, Flightline impressed.
April Mayberry, who put the colt through his early paces at her farm in Ocala, Fla., was compelled to call Sadler early in Flightline’s training to tell him he had a special one coming. Over decades of training hundreds of horses before they reached the racetrack, Mayberry made a similar call only one other time — to the connections of Zenyatta, the mare who won 19 of her 20 races.
Not long after, however, Flightline was startled while leaving his stall and banged into the stall latch, gashing him so deeply that he needed stitches and leaving a jagged scar down his right hindquarters. The colt did not race as a 2-year-old and would not make it to the racetrack for a timed workout until January 2021.
That meant no Kentucky Derby, no Triple Crown bid and no chance for casual sports fans to discover equine greatness as they did in 1973 when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by a jaw-dropping 31 lengths to complete the three-race triumph.
Instead, Flightline debuted as an odds-on favorite on April 24, 2021, winning the six-furlong sprint by 13 ¼ lengths at Santa Anita outside Los Angeles. A cracked hoof, however, kept him from the races until September, when he won another sprint by more than 12 lengths at Del Mar. In December, Flightline captured his first stakes race, the Malibu, by more than 11 lengths at Santa Anita.
Calamity soon followed. Flightline suffered a bone bruise in a hock that delayed his return to the races until June, when he won the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park in dominating fashion.
“There have been some setbacks and John has done the right thing and let the horse tell him when he was ready to run,” Finley said. “There is no arguing about his talent when he has gotten to the racetrack.”
Sadler’s rivals are impressed. The Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Life is Good and Happy Saver in the Classic, said he has treated Flightline’s previous races as appointment television.
“I’ve watched them all and he’s a tremendous horse,” Pletcher said. “He has that unique ability to cruise and accelerate.”
Another Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott, will try to upend Flightline’s coronation with Olympiad. Mott knows a thing or two about what qualifies horses for immortality. He guided the great Cigar through 16 consecutive victories and Horse of the Year titles in 1995 and 1996.
For Flightline to join Secretariat and Spectacular Bid, Man o’ War, Zenyatta, or horses like Forego and Kelso, Mott said that the colt needs to return to the racetrack as long as he is healthy and give the public more preternatural performances to admire.
“I think that’s what our sport needs,” he said. “It rouses interest. I think greatness is achieved through the test of time.”
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