HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, October 24, 2022 – As these lines are written, expectations are high, perhaps unrealistic, for what we might see in the mother of all races in Keeneland on November 5.
If Flightline achieves as many expectations and delivers another time capsule-worthy performance on one of the deepest fields in Breeders’ Cup Classic history, it could be the last time he’s seen on the circuit.
Fortunately, a door was left slightly ajar for a possible swansong at the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park on January 28, 2023. If he remains healthy, some of his connections would like to see what his five-year campaign years would look like.
A full score in two weeks could result from some estimates of syndication value in the $50-60 million range. This fact, and the insurance premiums that go with it, are too staggering to imagine, even in today’s age of dumb money.
The question most often asked by sportspeople but not necessarily horse racing enthusiasts is, “What is thoroughbred racing?” Is it a sport or just a colorful, albeit complex, game vehicle? The answer is neither:
Horse racing is a way of life, especially for those born into the business. As such it is a semi-closed society, although talented people can fit into the circle from outside the wire, competing with human foals whose lineage allows them to catch fliers by the door.
However, the one commodity that all stakeholders have in common – and that includes fans, especially fans – is passion.
The generational nature of the game is both good and bad news. Many believe that comparing horses of different generations is reckless and unfair. Change, after all, is inevitable. But how fun would that be? And that brings us back to the great Flightline.
But where does the star of Breeders’ Cup XXXVIII fit in a historical context? There is no doubt that he is an uncommon talent, a sensational performer, the architect of spectacular performances that are routine for Tapit’s most brilliant son.
No racehorse has ever forced him to bottom out. As the great Charles Hatton once wrote of Big Red of Meadow Stable, “the Secretariat’s only frame of reference is itself.” Most agree, but then came a horse named Flightline.
Flightline’s victory in the Pacific Classic in Del Mar had many including HRI comparing his performance to Secretariat’s in the Belmont Stakes, with most agreeing it was the greatest individual performance in the thoroughbred racing history, earning a Beyer speed figure of 139.
In that context, Flightline’s 126 BSF pales, but if the performance numbers worked out by Jerry Brown’s Thoro-Graph are any measure, the minus 8-1/2 Flightline earned in Del Mar was the biggest number ever earned by a American Thoroughbred.
Just as there are voters who will base their opinion on the best talking points and negativity, there remain a handful of horse players and riders, a number that dwindles with each passing day, who still believe that “time does not counts only in prison”.
For those and others who need more, namely a demonstrably richer body of work, two other data points are important; totality of departures and quality of the competition.
I remembered this world beyond speed numbers when I read Lisa DeMichael’s recent blog about her thedirtyhorseclub.com website.
DeMichael, a dedicated student and advocate of the Dosage Theory as formulated by Dr. Steven Roman and Stephen Miller, questioned the premise of Flightline’s GOAT status even though it completely defeats the very deepest field of disability assembled probably for decades.
In italics, excerpts from DeMichael’s latest column:
“There are certain horses in recent history that have captivated the public because of their dazzling speed and superior past performance records…
“I ask you though, have we allowed ourselves to just settle for what seems like the magnificent based on ‘that’s all we’ve got’ at a current moment…?
“As horse racing fans, we live to see the power of a thoroughbred that can take victory after victory by unimaginable lengths against tough competitors…
“But as diehard racing fans, are we unknowingly settling for mediocrity in the sport? Over the past decade, the standards have dropped dramatically from the greatness they once were…
“[Are today’s standards] in direct opposition to what true magnificence should be, could be? What was and never will be?
To illustrate, DeMichael broke Flightline’s record in plain English, that he didn’t run at age 2, only ran three times at age 3, breaking the girl, earning a preliminary allowance before taking the 7-furlong G1 Malibu Stakes from six disappointing rivals.
What matters most to DeMichael is the fact that Flightline has only run twice this year, winning the Grade 1 Metropolitan Mile against four rivals and Pacific Classic against five.
Flightline has been visually impressive, but his entire career to date has taken just 527 seconds, five races in which he has beaten a total of 26 rivals.
Back then, when I first encountered racetracks that gave me a crash course in racing history, I was regaled with stories of the great Italian champion Ribot. “The greatest of all time”, they insisted. Ironically, DeMichael chose Ribot to illustrate the historical context.
Ribot was bred and campaigned by legendary breeder Federico Tesio of Italy, whose racing creed was that in order for them to thrive, “horses must follow the sun”. Ribot is the product of three generations of Tesio couplings.
Ribot retired undefeated, a three-year career that spanned 16 races. The son of Italian stud, international winner Tenerani, and multi-stake winning mare Romanella, foaled at Newmarket and campaigned across Europe.
Facing large fields, he won at distances of five to 15 furlongs, winning the Arc de Triomphe twice. Other notable victories include the Grand Criterium at 2, the Gran Premio del Jockey Club at 3 and the King George VI Queen Elizabeth as a prelude to his second Arc, securing his legend.
DeMichael also showed respect for the pedigree, history and admiration for Flightline, but also laments, concluding:
“Over the past decade, our sport has slowly dissolved into a shroud of what it was in the past. And we have allowed it. The difference between American and foreign horse racing is the day and the night. There is no comparison…
“It’s getting harder year by year to take it all as seriously as it was years ago. Why can’t our horses run 16 races in their careers 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 true greatness on the circuit.“