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.