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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 9, 2022 – Taking the measure of assessing equine greatness in large measure is a matter of perception colored by facts. As Darrell Wayne Lukas reminds us, everyone has an opinion, horses have the facts.

Beyond yet another jaw-dropping performance, the only takeaway from the legacy of the great Flightline is that we will never know the extent of his true talent. His six comprehensive victories, one jaw-dropping performance after another, was a glimpse granted by the racing gods.

Flightline’s body of work is not close to the idea of a career, even in the age of Justify in which we race to breed, 180 degrees away from its origin. Only time can measure true historical greatness. Robbed of that, racing fans are left only with a sense of wonder about what might have been.

Flavien Prat told European racing journalist Jon Lees that he will never ride another like Flightline and promised “there’s more to come.” His meaning, of course, is that he’s never reached the bottom of the wondrous Tapit colt.

So we all will have to accept Prat’s word on that.

Fractional-owner Terry Finley, whose West Point syndicate sold a 2.5% share of Flightline’s breeding rights for $4.6 million one day after his retirement was announced the morning after his spellbinding victory, it all seemed to happen as fast as the colt runs his races.

Finley, and another part-owner, Kosta Hronis, spent some of their summer publicly lobbying for another year of racing for their lightly campaigned speedster, but more likely it was the Farish family who spoke loudest, pounding the gavel on a brilliant racing career.

We all live in the real world and acknowledge that $184 million in market value buys a billion dollars’ worth of equine equity. The argument that there was nothing left for Flightline to prove on the racetrack is valid except, of course, what’s left for posterity. His stud fee for 2023 is $200,000.

Flightline’s value to the sport, even in a limited, carefully crafted three-race campaign as a five-year-old, would have been priceless.

Tapit’s most brilliant son is the new millennium version of Secretariat in that, as Charles Hatton wrote of Big Red, “that his only frame of reference is himself.”

Placing Flightline’s ability In a similar context, his only rival was a stopwatch.

In his six-race run, Flightline ran a pair six furlong sprints in 1:08 3/5 and 1:08, respectively, seven furlongs in 1:21 1/5, a Metropolitan Mile in 1:33 3/5 despite being steadied twice, and a pair of 10-furlong classics in 1:59 1/5 and 2:00.05 to end his career.

His performances, when measured against the clock and the speed of the surface, earned the third highest Beyer Figure in history, the second fastest Ragozin Sheet number in a half-century, and the fastest Thoro-Graph rating ever.

Equibase Company has only been crafting speed figures since 2020. Of the Top 10 performances this year, Flightline’s figures ranked him first, second, third and fourth.

The notion of longevity is unworthy of mention. I understand comparing latter-day stud horses to fabled geldings of the past is the difference between apples and automobiles. Comparing different generations is inequitable, but to illustrate the career of several noted weight carriers:

Dr. Fager would have won nine his last 10 starts in a career that featured 22 starts with 18 wins, two seconds and a third, were it not for trainer Frank Whiteley’s use of stakes-winning sprinter Hedevar as a rabbit. In his last eight starts, he toted anywhere from 130 to 139 pounds,

Forego compiled a (57) 34-9-7 career slate, winning two Woodwards under 135 and 133, and an impossible Marlboro Cup in 2:00 toting 137. Legendary Kelso compiled a (63) 39-12-2 career record, including five Jockey Club Gold Cups, and winning the Whitney lugging 130 at age eight.

It’s like Joanie said, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Until some future racing historian has another take on Flightline’s legacy, here are a few other points and counter-points on what has been written, re-written, posted or tweeted.

The “who’d he ever beat?” argument is sophomoric. Affirmed had his Alydar and Easy Goer his Sunday Silence, but as any trainer, coach, or manager will tell you, you can only beat the ones lined up against you.

It was after all, Twice a Prince and My Gallant who finished behind the mighty Secretariat in what remains the greatest racing achievement ever delivered by a Thoroughbred. But when he won the Hopeful at 2, he was leaving Flight to Glory in his weight.

The great Spectacular Bid won four races at the expense of Flying Paster, a nice but not particularly memorable rival. In those races, which culminated with the Strub and then highly prestigious Santa Anita Handicap, he beat a total of 14 horses.

And, course, in the Woodward, Spectacular Bid beat absolutely nobody. J

In Seattle Slew’s undefeated Triple Crown campaign, from the Grade 1 Flamingo through the Grade 1 Belmont, he beat Giboulee, Fort Prevel, Catalan, Run Dusty Run and Sanhedrin thrice.

We’re not casting aspersions on any of the lesser talents here. All were nice horses and I would have loved to own any of them, but hardly were they memorable. But that’s what great horses do; they make good horses look bad.

Did Flightline run on anything other than a fast dirt track? Did he ever run on grass, or all-weather? Did he ever carry weight above scale? None of the above. In fact, the 126-pound scale-weighted Breeders’ Cup was two more than he ever carried before.

In terms of legacy, his biggest obstacle is that his six victories were spread over 20 months, starting April 24, 2021 through last weekend. Consider this six-race comparison:

Tom Fool, from April 25, 1953, to July 11, won his 4-year-old sprint-debut prior victories in the Joe Palmer, Metropolitan, Suburban, Carter, and Brooklyn–handicaps all–beneath 130, 130, 128, 135 and 136 pounds, respectively.

When Flightline’s time comes, will he be a first-ballot Hall of Famer? We have no doubt because style and margins matter. His six victories were by an aggregate 69-1/4 lengths. Only his troubled 6-length Met Mile and Classic romps were by less than double-digits.

The team of trainer John Sadler, exercise rider Juan Leyva, and passenger Prat, did a remarkable job teaching him to slow down early such that he could power away late. And that’s exactly what happened, six straight times, winning both 1-1/4 mile routes geared down.

In the final analysis, the only ones who could stop him were those who controlled his post-race destiny. In that sense, they took away from his ultimate legacy, cheating the sport that made it all possible.

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15 Responses

  1. Racing 2022 ! Despite the humans who screwed up the sport, there is no denying the brilliance of Flightline.

  2. As executive editor, I have space to fill here. Otherwise, you nailed it but an explanation was owed and it was a teachable moment on history for newbies…

  3. “The argument that there was nothing left for Flightline to prove on the racetrack is valid…”

    I’m not sure what you mean by that, John. Other than recording two exceptionally fast times while dominating vastly inferior opponents, and displaying versatility in terms of distance, what else DID he prove?

    Had he stayed in training, he might have faced a top-class opponent, and we could have learned how he would respond to pressure. His connections could have raced him on the turf, perhaps even in Europe against their best, etc. There was plenty left for him to prove.

    While it is true that there are other great horses that did not face outstanding opposition, your attempts to dismiss that factor with Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew and Secretariat fall flat. Even if one were to dismiss Flying Paster and Glorious Song as being no better than the likes of Country Grammar, which I would dispute, Spectacular Bid proved FAR more than Flightline during his career.

    He equalled one track record, and set EIGHT others, including a world record that stands to this day. He set the 9f. record at Hollywood (145.8) while carrying 130lbs, and won the Washington Park Hcp. at Arlington by 10 lengths, again carrying 130lbs., breaking the 9f. record previously held by Damascus.

    He won five Graded races, including three Grade I, in the span of 48 days as a two-year-old!

    Seattle Slew beat Affirmed and Exceller, and even his extraordinary losing effort to the latter in the JC Gold Cup was arguably more impressive that Flightline’s facile victories over deeply inferior runners.

    As for Secretariat, your focus on the Belmont is misleading. He easily beat Riva Ridge and Cougar II on the dirt in the Marlboro Cup, setting a track record at Belmont of 145.4 which stands to this day. He comfortably handled Big Spruce and Tentam in big races on turf, and set a course record of 2:24.8 in the Man o’ War. Those older horses were all FAR superior to the horses that Flightline beat.

    It’s perfectly fair to argue that we will never know how good Flightline was, and that he had great talent. But on any kind of close inspection, I don’t see how he might be considered equivalent to many, if any of the truly all-time great horses.

    Finally, and as I have argued before, because his connections chose money over sport, Flightline really doesn’t deserve any benefit of the doubt, when it comes to what might have been.

  4. Refer you back to D Wayne, everyone has an opinion and horses have the answers.

    Well, I believe my lying eyes and, even if I’m being myopic, it’s a fact that running time is the only absolutely truthful measure in the game. Handicapping is both art and science; running time is the science part.

    1. That’s a surprisingly silly claim, coming from you, John.

      Seattle Slew’s Performance in the JC Gold Cup earned him an 84 DRF figure with a 13 variant, modest by anyone’s standard. Does that figure, to your mind, along with the fact that he was beaten, provide a clearer, or more truthful assessment of his performance in the race, than the facts that he broke through the gate before the start, Cordero lost his irons early on, he was forced into fractions of :45.2 and 1:09.4 by none other than a top-class Triple Crown winner (Affirmed) whose saddle had slipped, yet was beaten only a dirty nose by a top-class horse (Exceller) that had benefitted tremendously from the insane pace?

      Do you consider Flightline’s Pacific Classic performance (126 Beyer), beating Country Grammar and Royal Ship, to have been better than those of Formal Gold when he easily handled Skip Away (124, 125), or that of Sunday Silence when he defeated Easy Goer in the BC Classic (124)?

  5. It was the greatest losing performance I have ever seen, the best effort of his career.

    This is not self-congratulatory, only to demonstrate loyalty to my favorite horse of all time.

    My first column for Newsday one week before the 77 Derby, I predicted he would win the Triple Crown.

    The Beyer Figure, or any speed speed, doesn’t tell the story of that effort.

    Time to get back to my silly work. I’ve said it somewhere before but worth repeating. It’s taken me as long to respond to my assessment of Flightline’s ability than it took him to run his races.

    On this issue, I’m out.

  6. Newsday, May 1, 1977:

    “May 8 Headline: Slew Wins Derby You read it here first”

    I predicted Lemon Drop Kid to win the 1999 Belmont. He won at odds of 30 to 1. You know who did NOT bet him ? Take a guess.

    1. Every time i see that Lemon Drop name Bob Hope`s movie come s to mind. Frightline ‘ s success maybe also due to the fact that the opposition was not much.It happens in other sports,movies,music. You may be good but the opponents’ liabilities,weaknesses make you look better.Hey,it even happened in double dating.Remember ? Michael Spinks in Boxing. Spinks would have been a tomato can in the 80`s with so many tough non champions. Same with Peter Frampton in music selling all of those millions of records in the mis 70’s. Also many Oscar winners who otherwise would have never won in other yrs. Now about the Buffalo Bills LOSERS in Three Super Bowls while many football fans,me included,think it was one of the better teams of that era ? I just hope that that time will show us how good his brood will be and not like some other famous horses who ‘struck out’,’shot blanks,’ in the honeymoon.. He was the best but maybe we never had a chance to digest,appreciate his lightening abilities. He came,He Won and He went,to change a famous historical line. Still.Congrats,greedy owners, but you ‘re Not helping the sport,its fans or bettors. It`s Your Money and the ball is in your court . But….

  7. Oh, c’mon Dan, tell me you didn’t do that! How he paid that much following his Peter Pan I still don’t understand.

    I bet on him but did not have the exacta, a great call by Monmouth handicapper Brad Thomas (a big price Bill Mott horse whose name escapes me but it completed a $1,000+ exacta).

    Lemon Drop has a special place in my heart; I loved Scotty Schulhofer, a great human being as well as Hall of Famer.

    At the time, I had a handicapping gig at Suffolk OTB in which I did prattle between races. Well, I picked him to win and actually got a round of applause when they hit the Belmont finish line.

    That was a first–and a last. My knocks-to-applause ratio wasn’t very good.

  8. 10 Highest BSFs I can find after reviewing several lists. This does not include the 139 for Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont.

    Flightline was a 121 in the BC Classic.

    Groovy; 1987; 133; Roseben
    Groovy; 1987; 132; True North
    Ghostzapper; 2004; 128; Iselin
    Flightline; 2022; 126; Pacific Classic
    Will’s Way; 1997; 126; Whitney
    Formal Gold; 1997; 126; Whitney
    Gentlemen; 1997; 126; Pimlico Special
    Formal Gold; 1997; 125; Woodward
    Skip Away; 1997; 125; Pimlico Special
    Bertrando; 1993; 125; Woodward

    1. Good job Dan. It will be good reference in the future, saved to my Desktop.

      It’s the HRI Faithful that keep my fires lit. Thank you!

      1. Precisionist, a horse which was FAR more accomplished than Flightine, earned the highest Beyer figure ever in a Breeders’ Cup race – 125, when he won the Sprint. He also earned a 128 in the 9f. Woodward, and Andy Beyer has noted that it was as fast as any race run by Spectacular Bid! Has there been another horse to earn such high figures while winning at such disparate distances, and in Grade I races against top horses? Not to my knowledge.

        As a further reminder of the power of recency bias, note that almost almost no one would talk about Precisionist as having been an “all-time great”.

      2. The list may have a few omissions. BSFs before 1992 are more difficult to find because that is the year the DRF started to include them. I found the lifetime past performances of Precisionist, but the BSF is not included. I will post the link with your permission.

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