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.
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 thedirtyhorseclub.com 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.“