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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 24, 2022 — As this is written, expectations are high, perhaps unrealistically so, for what we might witness in the mother of all feature races at Keeneland on November 5.

If Flightline performs as many expect and delivers another performance worthy of a time capsule over one of the deepest fields in Breeders’ Cup Classic history, it could be the final time he is seen on the racetrack.

Thankfully, a door has been left slightly ajar for a possible swansong in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park on January 28, 2023. Should he remain healthy, some of his connections would love to see what his five-year-old campaign would look like.

A comprehensive score two weeks hence could result by some estimates of syndication value in the 50-to-60 million dollar range. That fact, and the insurance premiums that go with, is all too staggering to imagine, even in today’s ‘stupid-money’ era.

The question most often asked by sports but not necessarily horse racing devotees is: “What is Thoroughbred racing? Is it a sport or simply a colorful, albeit complex, gambling vehicle? The answer is neither:

Horse racing is a way of life, especially for those born into the business. As such, it’s a semi-closed society even though talented people can work themselves into the circle from outside the wire, competing with the human foals whose lineage allows them to catch flyers out of the gate.

However, the one commodity all stakeholders have in common–and this includes fans, especially the fans—is passion.

The generational nature of the game is both the good and bad news. Many believe that comparing horses from different generations is foolhardy and unfair. Change, after all, is inevitable. But what fun would that be? And this brings us full circle to the great Flightline.

Where the Surf Meets the Autobahn DelMar photo

But just where does the star of Breeders’ Cup XXXVIII rank in a historical context? There is no doubt he is an uncommon talent, a sensational performer, the architect of spectacular performances that are a matter of routine for Tapit’s brightest son.

No racehorse has ever forced him to reach bottom. As the great Charles Hatton once wrote about Big Red of Meadow Stable, “Secretariat’s only frame of reference is himself.” Most agree, but then along came a horse named Flightline.

Flightline’s victory in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar had many, HRI included, comparing his performance to that of Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes, with most agreeing that it was the greatest single performance in Thoroughbred racing history, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 139.

In that context, Flightline’s 126 BSF pales, but if performance figures crafted by Jerry Brown’s Thoro-Graph are the measure, the minus 8-1/2 Flightline earned at Del Mar was the biggest figure ever earned by an American Thoroughbred.

Just as there are voters who will base their opinion on the best talking points and negativity, there remains a handful of horseplayers and horsemen, a number that declines with each passing day, who still believe “time only counts in jail.”

For those and for others requiring more, namely a demonstrably richer body of work, two other data points matter; totality of starts and quality of competition.

I was reminded of this world beyond speed figures when I read Lisa DeMichael’s recent blog on her website.

DeMichael, a devoted student and advocate of Dosage Theory as formulated by Dr. Steven Roman and Stephen Miller, questioned the premise of Flightline’s GOAT status even if he comprehensively defeats the deepest handicap field assembled quite possibly in decades.

Italicized are excerpts from DeMichael’s latest column:

“There are certain horses in recent history who have captivated the public based on their dazzling speed and superior past performance sheets…

”I ask you though, have we allowed ourselves to simply settle for what appears to be the magnificent based on “that’s all we have going” at a current moment in time…?

“As horse racing fans, we live to see the power of a thoroughbred who can post win after win by unimaginable lengths against tough competitors…

“But as die-hard racing fans, are we unknowingly settling for mediocrity in this sport? Over the last decade or so, standards have dropped substantially from the grandeur it once was…

“[Are today’s standards] in direct opposition to what real magnificence should be, could be? What it once was and will never be again?”

To illustrate, DeMichael broke down Flightline’s record in stark terms, that he was unraced at 2, ran only thrice at 3, breaking maiden, winning a preliminary allowance before taking the 7-furlong G1 Malibu Stakes from six underwhelming rivals.

Of greater import to DeMichael is the fact Flightline has run but twice this year, winning the Grade 1 Metropolitan Mile over four rivals and Pacific Classic versus five.

Flightline has been ungodly impressive visually, but his entire career to date has taken only 527 seconds to complete, five races in which he defeated a total of 26 rivals.       

Back in the day, when I first met racetrackers who provided a crash course in racing history, I was regaled with stories of the great Italian champion Ribot. “The greatest ever,” they insisted. Ironically, DeMichael chose Ribot to illustrate historical context.

Ribot was bred and campaigned by legendary breeder Federico Tesio of Italy, whose racing credo was that in order for them to thrive, “horses should follow the sun.” Ribot was the product of three generations of Tesio matings.

Ribot retired undefeated, a three-year career that spanned 16 races. The son of an Italian stud, international winner Tenerani, and from the multiple stakes winning mare Romanella, was foaled in Newmarket and campaigned all over Europe.

Facing large fields, he won at distances from five to 15 furlongs, winning the Arc de Triomphe twice. Other notable victories included  the Grand Criterium at 2, the Gran Premio del Jockey Club at 3, and the King George VI Queen Elizabeth as prelude to his second Arc, thus securing his legend.

DeMichael also showed respect for pedigree, history, and admiration for Flightline, but lamentations, too, concluding:

“Over the past decade, our sport has slowly dissolved into a veil of what it was in the past. And we allowed it. The difference between American and overseas horse racing is night and day. There is no comparison…

“It is becoming harder and harder with each passing year to take all of this as seriously as I did years ago. Why can’t our horses run in 16 races in their career like Ribot did…?

“I have absolutely nothing against [Flightline] and I know he will be at the top of my bets in the Classic… but I question our perception of what constitutes real greatness on the racetrack.

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19 Responses

  1. If one watches Thoroughbred racing presented on television (ie: America’s Day at the Races) the bulk of the advertising between races is a brief documentary on some breeding farm. Me, a gambler, having read the current race ‘conditions’ (requirements to be met for the plodder to qualify as an entrant Alice) am working the past performances of the race forthcoming and pretty much ignore the advertising as it certainly will not assist me in pick’in a winner. So, who is watching the advertising between the races if such will not aid a ‘capper? It’s like the breeders, owners, track management, race commentators, and turf writers are on another planet while the blokes who entered the race track via the front entrance are wagering on the coming race.

    The above is augmented by Mr. Pricci writing ‘The question most often asked . . . . .What is Thoroughbred racing? Is it a sport or simply a colorful, albeit complex, gambling vehicle. The answer is neither.’ We all, who have held a winning ticket in a sweaty paw, as the horse bet staggers toward the finish line knows what Thoroughbred racing is all about.

    Lisa DeMichael writes ‘as die-hard racing fans, are we knowingly settling for mediocrity in this sport (well, we know from this comment that she doesn’t consider Thoroughbred racing a gambling vehicle) . . . .standards have dropped substantially from the grandeur it once was’.

    Y’all have watch a race card at a racetrack. Did you really care if some of the races were stake races with huge purses fueled from casino dole and other races had small purses? All you want to do is pick a winner, to cash a ticket, to make money. Right?

    So, what is Flightline or any other blue blood going to do for you wallet? Do you really care who is gonna win the Classic or the Pegasus?
    Aren’t all Thoroughbred races the same? They look the same to me, and when looked at closely a serious ‘capper can find a plug that has a real shot at winning at a price.

    Yes Virginia, Thoroughbred racing for the blokes who are not breeders, owners, or turf writers is a gambling vehicle. And, if you don’t think so, then visualize who would give Thoroughbred racing a second look if there were no ability go place a bet on a race. Yet, I read commentary, like the above, that is so far off from reality.

  2. There are still some of us who love the sport and bask in its history, WMC. We also bet our money, not to worry. It is sad how the entire industry caters to the breeding industry since those stakeholders provide much dinero in advertising revenue. We’re said it before: The races serve as the marketing arm of the breeding segment. It’s just a sad fact of life in the state of the sport in 2022.

    Not to worry; we bet. Sometimes we even get lucky…

  3. Yes, ‘the entire industry caters to the breeding industry’ as you write, Mr. Pricci. And, turf writers and on-air commentators are the advertising arm for a select group of trainers and jockeys. And us blokes are suppose to get excited about Flightline or some other blue blood who will be a heavy favorite offering no value.

    I gotta be missing something after all these years: I’m a die-hard horse player and I do not think I am ‘knowingly settling for mediocrity’ as DeMichael writes. I see no mediocrity anywhere, just numerous horse races to be ‘capped.


    Fabulous card at Philly today. Paco/Reid and Pennington/Servis.

  4. Small exception. While they are in the same organization, there is a subtle difference between turf writers and on-air-commentators. Turf writers who speak with an independent voice give their opinions based on the facts in front of them. If Chad Brown or Todd Pletcher wins a race, it you’re writing about that race, you’re “reporting” on those who won–and lost.

    On-air people are paid by the tracks or their broadcast organizations who exist on advertising revenue. The talent needs access to horsemen and women to find out what fans and bettors need to know and to make the content as entertaining and informative as possible.

    Must point out that there’s far too much equivocating when talent share their opinions. If you disagree with that assessment, then you’re all about negativity. What the good ones are about is objectivity, calling them as they see them without apology.

    But I suppose you’re right. Many fans visit this site, yet not one has an opinion on the topic at hand, all-time GOATness. I often wonder why I bother. I should just STFU and handicap, right? (Don’t answer that).

  5. I’m going to digress here, no doubt get the attack dogs riled, and yet again be labeled a curmudgeon for repeating , yet again, the same ole’ mantra.

    No, I don’t want you to STFU and stop your commentary at your website – HRI. What! It has been about fifteen years of your commentary and my comments; and in all this time I have been unable to achieve my objective: Thoroughbred racing’s only attraction is the betting window; it is not blue bloods, trainers, or jockeys that perk the ears of a newbie or a hardcore gambler; it is all about cashing tickets. But what is preached to the public? Stake races, blue bloods who won them, trainers who trained them, and jockeys who rode them; so, if this is what Thoroughbred racing is all about, what are the other races on a day’s race card suppose to accomplish? These races get no media coverage – nothing! Simply ‘fill-ins’ that are beneath the radar of the media? Yet, these races outnumber stake races 10:1, 15:1? Like Dangerfield, they get no respect; but who are the jocks up on these plugs? The same jockeys that ride the blue bloods. Imagine that!

    It should be obvious that blue bloods and stake races are absolutely no different for wagering purposes than a lowly claiming race. So why do breeders of so-called ‘super’ blue bloods and their trainers receive all the ‘ink’?

    I wonder if I will ever read a column by a turf writer which is headed ‘XYZ’ is well spotted in the fifth at Delaware, or ‘Widget’ figures at a price in the 9th at Parx (10:1, 15:1 Alice, and everyday these races are totally ignored by the media).

    The Thoroughbred industry, kept afloat by casino dole, still hasn’t after all these years promoted itself for what it actual is: a gambling option to sporting events; instead it prefers to promote itself as a sport with so-called ‘super stars’ (blue bloods bred by the only people actually making serious money).


    1. Agreed that marketing and promotion don’t go far enough.

      So. you’re looking for spot plays? Who isn’t? I don’t have the time, or the energy, or the patience to look at anywhere from 10 to 20 races a week. There’s more to handicapping than opening a rac9ng form, especially with takeout and field size, in general, the way it is.

      Given those constraints, I look at the horses who fans know because they get the coverage. In racing, familiarity breeds loyalty, not contempt.

      And what you’re not getting, or accepting, since 2007 is that bettors bet more money on stakes races because those are the horses they know, the ones commentators concentrate on, and the men and women who train them, gibe them background they need for making more informed decisions.

      Betting statistics don’t lie. As is done in every facet of life, I’m just following the money.

  6. JP–
    As you know, I have been on the Flightline bandwagon for quite sometime and will continue to commit blasphemy in the eyes of many by daring to mention Flightline’s name in the same breath as Secretariat. However, that being said, I find it somewhat sad that the next challenge for Flightline is nigh and there is little buzz (outside of the equine industry) about his upcoming race. The mainstream media certainly provided mucho publicity for Secretariat–including Time Magazine, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated all featuring Big Red on their covers prior to the 1973 Belmont Stakes (something that has never happened before or since). But there is no similar hype about Flightline.

    I suppose some of that is deserved since Flightline’s dance card has been far more limited than the immortal Secretariat. But although he is not a Triple Crown winner like Secretariat, Flightline has accomplished something as a 4yo that Secretariat didn’t–he remains undefeated!

    1. Chuck, Flightline has not lit up the public’s imagination. There’s no curiosity about him. Thing is the public cares about the Triple Crown, period. The cliche is that the Breeders’ Cup is about the betting, which it certainly is.

      Tell you what, though, if, as stated below, he puts a margin on the lineup a week from Saturday, fans will be coming from all over, whatever the cost, to see the superhorse. And that’s exciting for horseplayers and fans to conjure.

  7. It’s ludicrous to assert that Flightline an all-time great essentially on the basis of one, exceptionally fast race.


    1. Tink, Fans are talking about it and I decided to shine a light on the debate. I’m not asserting anything. But if he puts a margin on the group that will be assembled to face him, I’ll certainly entertain the notion then. Right now, just talking sports but if it weren’t for a difference of opinion, there’d be no game…

      1. Sorry, John, I wasn’t referring to your post, which is well-balanced

        The BC should help to move the conversation forward, but let’s be clear about the quality of the prospective field: it is nothing special.

        Epicenter, obviously a good, and improving horse, but he is a 3yo with only a single Grade I win to his credit, and that was at the expense of two rather ordinary “good” horses within the same division. In other words, at this stage of his career he isn’t in the league of the likes of Unbridled, A.P. Indy, Easy Goer or Sunday Silence, etc.

        Taiba is very talented, and to his credit has apparently overcome gross, early mismanagement. But he hasn’t yet run exceptionally fast, and 10f. remains a question mark.

        Life is Good appeared to be patently unsuited to 10f. in Dubai. Perhaps there was a reason other than a lack of stamina, but his pedigree doesn’t inspire confidence. He could, however, serve the role of a high-class rabbit, which would make Flightline work harder than in his previous starts.

        Hot Rod Charlie appears to be better at 9f. than 10, and is well-exposed at this stage of his career.


        1. Tink, the horses you named are worthy to be included on any all-time list in whatever order a handicapper fancies. In terms of all-time, let’s see what happens a week from Saturday.

          IMO, you are underrating the 2022 Classic field in general. But specifically, you are doing Epicenter a disservice. Yes, only one Grade 1 to date but you must admit he has made winning efforts but has been unlucky. I realize it’s not horse-shoes.

          Whatever happens Saturday, I am highly confident he will open your eyes as a four-year-old.


          Now, if, say–and this is by no means a prediction–that he wins by eight or 10 in two minutes for the 10 furlongs, historical comparisons would definitely be warranted.

          1. With regard to Epicenter, I am simply stating facts relating to his career to date. I mentioned that he is improving, and he may well ultimately prove to be an exceptionally good horse. But even if I agree that he has been somewhat unlucky, arguing that he could have won some other big races with better luck isn’t enough for me to consider him a particularly high hurdle for Flightline to clear.

            Were Flightline to run another huge, winning race, with Epicenter moving forward yet again, I would certainly re-assess the form of both of them.

    2. How many lifetime starts will Flightline end up with ?

      Hard to get excited about a “star” when the horse runs in 5 races in 18 months.

  8. JP–
    You state it well–Flightline has not captured the public interest that a select few. like Rachel Alexandra, have been able to command in the wake of Secretariat. Here’s hoping for another stunning victory by Flightline to fire up the fan base. And it could set the stage for a Pegasus to remember!

  9. Chuck, to reiterate: If Flightline delivers another remarkable performance, over a surface more demanding than those in SoCal, I think fans will come from all over the racing world to see what then might be his final appearance at Gulfstream Park. But he needs to take care of business first.

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