Flightline is the undisputed star of this weekend’s 39th Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
The brilliant colt, who may go off as the largest betting favorite in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, has never lost in five career races. He’s frequently mentioned in the same sentence as the legendary Secretariat.
So why is this dominant 4-year-old colt flying (almost literally) under the radar? And just how fast is the powerful, long-striding bay colt, whom a Daily Racing Form headline recently proclaimed was in “A league of his own,’’ when Breeders’ Cup pre-entries were announced last week.
Let’s answer the second question first.
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Sensational Speed Figures
It isn’t just that Flightline is a perfect 5-for-5 on the track. It’s the manner in which he’s dominating.
Four of his five wins were by double-digit lengths. His aggregate margin of victory in his five races is 62 3/4 lengths, about the length of 1 3/4 football fields. And three of those races were against Grade I competition, the highest level in thoroughbred racing.
Flightline’s most recent start was especially eye-opening — a 19 1/4-length victory in the Pacific Classic, a margin so decisive that bettors could have watched a few TikTok videos while waiting for runner-up Country Grammer to cross the finish line behind him.
No matter which speed figures you subscribe to, Flightline’s performance in that race — he narrowly missed the Del Mar track record for the 1 1/4-mile distance — was among the best of his generation. His 126 Beyer figure is the second-fastest since Beyer speed numbers were first compiled more the 30 years ago. Thoro-Graph awarded Flightline the fastest number it ever assigned to any horse. And Timeform, one of the most popular makers of global speed figures, awarded Flightline the highest number given to any American-trained horse.
“He’s just a superior athlete,’’ trainer John Sadler told the Paulick Report. “He’s faster, he’s stronger, he’s got a big engine. He’s LeBron (James) in high school — he’s bigger, more powerful, stronger than the other horses.’’
Initially, critics pointed out that Flightline’s first three victories were six and seven-furlong sprints, and that he was an incredibly fast horse not yet proven at the classic distances. Then he won at a mile, and then ran the competition off the screen in the 1-1/4 mile Pacific Classic, the same distance as Saturday’s $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Horse racing aficionados are now using adjectives such as awesome and astonishing to describe Flightline’s races. But to most of the general public, a different description applies: anonymous.
Missed the Big Races
Horse racing was far more mainstream when 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek. But the sport’s significantly lower national profile isn’t to blame for the public’s lack of awareness of Flightline. After all, recent Triple Crown winners American Pharaoh (2015) and Justify (2018) gained a measure of fame and acclaim, as did the mare Zenyatta, who beat the boys in dramatic fashion in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Flightline simply hasn’t competed in any of the sport’s most popular races. The Triple Crown events provide most of the sport’s national exposure and Flightline didn’t compete in any of them. This will be Flightline’s first (and perhaps only) start in a Breeders’ Cup race, the other big event which helps horse racing carve out its small niche on the national sports map.
Flightline has been conservatively campaigned by well-respected Southern California trainer John Sadler, who has won nearly 3,000 races in his long career. The horse was placed in his care with high expectations — co-owners Hronis Racing, West Point Thoroughbreds and three other groups paid $1 million for the well-bred son of Tapit at a 2019 yearling sale.
Flightline did not race as a 2-year-old and didn’t make his first career start at 3 until April 2021, just a few weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Because of a foot and other physical issues, Sadler has taken a cautious approach with Flightline, who after a dynamic winning debut, didn’t race again for five months.
Then it was gaps of three months (Malibu Stakes), six months (Metropolitan Mile) and three months (Pacific Classic) between Flightline’s next three starts. While Flightline isn’t winning any popularity contests by mostly remaining in Sadler’s barn, his connections determined that extended rest and workouts — rather than actual races — were the best way to prepare their horse for a championship campaign.
It’s difficult for horse racing to market their stars when they don’t race much and are retired to stud before the public has a chance to latch on. The latter may also apply to Flightline, whose stud value will far exceed any potential future earnings on the track.
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Decision on Flightline’s Future Coming
The Breeders’ Cup Classic field will be the most formidable of Flightline’s brief career, yet his incredibly short morning-line odds of 3-5 indicate he is expected to dispatch these foes as easily as his previous ones.
If he does, his bandwagon isn’t likely to grow all that much. His connections have not determined (or at least said publicly) if Saturday’s race will be the last of Flightline’s career. He is considered one of the most valuable stallion prospects ever to be retired to stud and a deal is already in place for him to stand at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky.
A decision on whether Flightline will race next year at age 5 will be made after the Breeders’ Cup.
If he wins on Saturday, the horse racing community can celebrate his brilliance and comparisons with the sport’s all-time fastest horses will become more valid, despite Flightline’s lack of racing longevity. His unbeaten record and gaudy speed figures will be hard to deny, even if most of the general public hardly knew him.
Breeders Cup Classic Field
|2||Life Is Good||Irad Ortiz||6-1|
|3||Happy Saver||John Velazquez||30-1|
|5||Hot Rod Charlie||Tyler Gaffalione||15-1|
|6||Rich Strike||Sonny Leon||20-1|
Saturday’s race is scheduled for 5:40 p.m. ET.
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