By Jim Charvat, Del Mar Turf Club — These days Flightline lives in quiet surroundings at Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, away from all of the hustle and bustle of the racetrack, enjoying retirement like any other accomplished professional, with a few exceptions.
No more training, no more airplane flights, no more early wake-up calls, no more humans climbing on his back. Just a stroll in the pasture and some regular trips to the breeding shed.
Meanwhile, 2,100 miles away his human connections are hard at work preparing for another day of racing, working to keep their horses happy and missing their star Thoroughbred every day.
It was one year ago when the son of Tapit came to Del Mar and left an impression with the fans and on the entire sport. It started with his workouts leading up to the race and finished with a record-setting performance that solidified his standing as the best horse running. He followed up with another dominating showing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that clinched Horse of the Year honors and put a cap on an undefeated career.
He was a horse of lifetime for trainer John Sadler, his assistant Juan Leyva, jockey Flavien Prat and an ownership group led by Kosta Hronis. There was no Kentucky Derby or Triple Crown. Just six races that left those who witnessed them in awe at what they just saw.
“I know there were a lot of questions going in about the distance and this and that,” Hronis says. “But I think anybody who knew Flightline and was around him knew this was the greatest racehorse of our time and he was going to handle that with the grace and elegance that he did.”
One year later, Sadler sits in his office at the end of Barn K on the Del Mar backside, remembering fondly the run Flightline took him on last summer.
“I didn’t sleep most of the summer,” Sadler says. “I was so on edge because I knew he adores this track. He trained so great down here for two years and when he won here as a 3-year-old he was so impressive and ran such a great number.”
That first race at Del Mar was an entry level allowance race on closing weekend in 2021. It was six furlongs and was over by the time they hit the top of the lane. Flightline would go on to win by 12 ¾ lengths
You can see the odds, you know the results.
It was the second straight rout by the son of Tapit. He broke his maiden at Santa Anita four months earlier by 13 ¼ lengths. So he had won his first two races by a combined 26 lengths and the masses started clamoring for a run at the Breeders’ Cup. But the connections and Sadler held their ground.
“We just felt that it was in his best interest not to put him in the Breeders’ Cup on his third start,” Sadler says. “We had a great race, a very historic race, the G1 Malibu on opening day at Santa Anita. So we thought for his 4-year-old campaign we’d start him off in the Malibu.
“It’s debatable whether or not he would have won the Breeders’ Cup as a 3-year-old,” Sadler continues. “You never know, he probably could of. But that was one of the decisions we made along the road and we were happy with it and obviously it worked out.”
Flightline would win the Malibu in typical dominating fashion, this time by 11 ½ lengths. Then he suffered the first setback in his racing career. In early 2022 he suffered a strained hock that caused him to miss a race at Santa Anita. He would recover in time to make the G1 Met Mile at Belmont Park in June and he picked up where he left off. He destroyed them.
While the margin of victory might say otherwise, a mere six lengths, anyone who watched the race knew it was over turning for home. Afterwards, Sadler announced they would be running next in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar September 3.
“The thing that always gave us such confidence is that he trained so well,” Sadler says. “A lot of people asked if we were going to run him in the San Diego to prep him for the Pacific Classic. But he trained so well that sometimes it’s a risk reward. Do you put your best race forward in the prep? He didn’t need preps, he needed to show up on the biggest days and the biggest stage and he’d be ready to go.”
When Sadler brought his string of horses down from Santa Anita to Del Mar last summer, he parked Flightline in the stall closest to his office but he’ll tell you it was more of a coincidence than by design.
“He was there both years,” Sadler says. “Every year since we’ve been here, the last 30, 40 years, the grooms who have been with us a long time have the same numbered stalls.
“He was in there the first year,” Sadler says with a superstitious chuckle, “and then from year one to year two we weren’t about to change it.
“Personally, I loved having him right there,” Sadler continues. “Right where I can stick my head out and look at him. Many mornings I would just be watching him and observing him.”
The build up to the race was fueled by Flightline’s works. Sadler put six workouts into the big fella. Each one more impressive than the last. At his final workout on August 27, fans were showing up to Del Mar to watch Flightline glide over the track.
Juan Leyva knows firsthand what it was like to ride Flightline. He was the one in the saddle for all those morning exercises and works.
Drilling in the a.m. with Juan Leyva.
“It was extremely different,” Leyva says about riding Flightline. “There’s no other horse that I’ve ever been on that felt the way he felt. He had a special way of moving. He moved with ease but power at the same time and he did things so much easier than any other horse I’ve ever been around. I could feel that the first day I sat on him.
“Obviously you feel the difference between a Lexus and a Nissan,” Leyva continues. “But with him I don’t even think you can compare him to a sports car. He was just much more than that. He was a jet.”
“The training was similar to what we do for all the horses,” Sadler notes. “But the way he did it; every work was sensational. He trained beautifully here last summer. You’d see some other 1:12’s on the paper or other fast works but the way he did it. When he was having a bullet work, he was still way within himself. It was exceptional, fun to watch and fun to be a part of.”
Sadler’s objective was simple. Control everything he had control over. Things like the weather or a horse getting loose on the track at the same time Flightline was out on his early morning routine, two days before the race, were things that were not in Sadler’s control.
After Flightline’s penultimate work on August 20th, Sadler was heard to blurt out, ‘Gorgeous’ as his horse passed by the grandstand. But always the consummate professional and sportsman, Sadler never went grandiose with descriptions of Flightline.
“As the thing was going on with Flightline, I never wanted to be the guy jumping up with the super huge statements,” Sadler remembers, “because I feel like it’s almost bad luck. If I had gone out and said he was going to dominate in the Pacific Classic that’s the minute your horse falls down coming out of the gate.
“I didn’t want to jinx anything along the way,” Sadler continues. “I let the horse speak for himself, which he did.”
Loud and clear.
Flightline goes airborne as the TVG Pacific Classic finish line nears.
Flightline put on a record performance in the Pacific Classic, winning by 19 ¼ lengths, one that had veteran turf writers running out of superlatives as they tried to describe the Secretariat-like performance. But while the run might have made some noise in the racing world, Hronis remembers the crowd’s reaction being quite different.
“I’ve never been at Del Mar and the Pacific Classic and had such a hush as he was coming to the finish line,” Hronis says. “I think everybody was in awe but it got really quiet, which I found was a tribute to him and his greatness that everybody just took it in and started to clap and applaud. It was just amazing.”
Sadler would say later that not even Secretariat could have beaten Flightline on this day, a story he sticks by even today.
“Absolutely,” Sadler says with a smile. “I don’t think there was a horse who would have beat him in that race last year.”
“It was just a great day,” Hronis says. “I was so happy for John Sadler and the barn because I know the pressure they felt handling Flightline. I guess the only bad thing is he broke Accelerate’s record for lengths to win the race by. From one Hronis horse to another.”
“It was like a dream come true,” Leyva says, “because I saw him doing that and when he did it in real life I was like ‘That’s what I knew he would do.’”
Flightline would go on to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and complete his undefeated career. Once again, Sadler was saddled with not only keeping his horse happy and in form, but dealing with the hordes of media and dignitaries who wanted a close up look at the superstar.
“I think as a veteran trainer,” Sadler says, “having been through some Derbies and previous Breeders’ Cups, Accelerate winning one, I was prepared. We were ready for the way it went in Kentucky. We put up some barriers and didn’t let the press under the shedrow. We kept them at bay not because it’s best for the press but it was best for the horse to be quiet and resting. I didn’t feel, at any time, that it was too much.”
Flightline’s last work before the Breeders’ Cup Classic drew and estimated three thousand people to Keeneland to watch him go.
“The level of detail that went into it,” Sadler recalls. “His feed was shipped from California to Kentucky before the Breeders’ Cup so everything was duplicated from his home base.
“We went two weeks early which is a little abnormal for us to go that early,” Sadler continues, “Just to give us more cushion so the surroundings couldn’t offset him. We did everything we could to keep the barn routine mundane and his training under control. We knew if he got over there in good shape…Katie bar the door.”
He won, of course, in style. This time by 8 ¼ lengths. Just toyed with the best horses in the handicap division. Afterward the connections announced they would be retiring him to stud emitting a collective groan of disappointment from the racing world. Even Sadler would have liked to seen Flightline stay in training.
“Oh, absolutely, but it wasn’t meant to be,” Sadler says. “A lot of factors went into it. One, the insurance market wasn’t there. You couldn’t insure him for the full value he was worth. Two, what was there to prove? He’d beaten everything. There wasn’t a good rival for him. If we brought him back this year who was he going to face. The other horses that were considered the top horses in the country, like Epicenter and Cyberknife, went to stud. It just was the right decision.”
So now he’s off making babies with the likes of two-time G3 Rancho Bernardo winner Edgeway, and 2022 Clement Hirsch winner and Breeders’ Cup Distaff runner-up, Blue Stripe.
One might assume Sadler doesn’t miss the commotion and constant attention that came with training the Horse of the Year, but you’d be wrong.
“Oh, I miss all of it,” Sadler notes. “To have the best horse in the country, I miss that. Everybody thinks it’s more relaxed, it’s more chill, but racing is racing. You want to do well and you’re on edge over how you’re going to do it but I would never shy away from pressure.”
Even now, Sadler and his staff are dealing with the huge void left by Flightline.
“I miss him dearly,” Leyva says. “We had him for two years. He was entrusted to us and I feel like we were good ambassadors for him. We took care of him, did the best by him and I was really glad that he was able to retire undefeated.”
“Picture it like you’re down at the beach and you’re trying to fill in the ocean,” Sadler says of filling the void at the barn. “I’ve got the toughest job in horseracing. Replacing Flightline. Good luck with that.”
Hronis adds: “I have always said and will say for the rest of my life that as blessed as we were to have Flightline in our barn, Flightline was blessed to have John Sadler because he handled him so well. Never pushed him. He knew what a brilliant athlete he was. John’s patience with him really paid off.”
There’s a new horse in the stall next to Sadler’s office. A good-looking 2-year-old named Concord Bridge, by Medaglia d’Oro. Sadler’s thinking of running him in a maiden race at Del Mar before the end of the meet.
“As a professional horse trainer, you keep going,” Sadler says. “I don’t really get into the thing that ‘You’ll never have one as good as him again.’ I don’t really think that. I enjoy training horses. You have new horses and it’s fun to see the process continue.”