Breeders’ Cup Classic will determine Flightline’s place in racing history

A horse named Flightline might be the most dominant competitor currently in any sport. Of course, because it’s horse racing, the average sports fan likely has no idea who he is and what his mark on sports history might be. The name recognition might get a little bump Saturday when he competes in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.

The Breeders’ Cup is the two-day Super Bowl of horse racing with 14 races whose purses total more than $31 million. The event starts Friday with five races, all of them for 2-year-olds.

This is the 39th running of the Breeders’ Cup, which started with its first event at Hollywood Park in 1984. Hollywood Park is no more, being bulldozed and eventually becoming SoFi Stadium, but the Breeders’ Cup has a strong relationship with Southern California.

The Breeders’ Cup has fallen into a predictable pattern of alternating the event between Southern California and Kentucky. Last year, it was at Del Mar. Next year it will be at Santa Anita for a record 11th time.

But this year is all about Flightline, whom some are calling the best horse since Secretariat.

Viewers will have to do a little dial hopping to watch all of the races. Friday’s five races can be seen on FanDuel TV, the network formerly known as TVG, and USA Network. Coverage will go from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT.

On Saturday, FanDuel TV will have the first eight Breeders’ Cup races, starting at 11:50 a.m. PT. USA Network will provide coverage between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. PDT. The main NBC network stations, and its streaming service Peacock, will carry the Classic with coverage between 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. PDT.

In order to get a sense of what to expect, here are five story lines up for discussion for the two-day event:

How good is Flightline?

Strange as it sounds, it’s unknown how good he can be. The 4-year-old has raced only five times and been outside of California just once. An injury as the result of running into a fence slowed his career as a 2-year-old before he started racing. The recovery time forced him to miss the Triple Crown season. He won his first three races by 13¼, 12¾ and 11½ lengths. In his only start outside the state, he won the Metropolitan Mile by six lengths despite a very troubled trip. But the best was yet to come.

About two months ago it was supposed to be his toughest challenge, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. It was his first time running 1¼ miles and there was a strong field of competitors. He won by 19¼ lengths and that’s after jockey Flavien Prat asked for no extra effort down the stretch.

His biggest threat is considered to be Life Is Good, who has won nine of his 11 races, including last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Also in the race is Rich Strike, the upset winner of the Kentucky Derby. If Flightline wins, the immediate question will be if he will return next year as a 5-year-old and give the sport a legitimate superstar or if he’ll go off to a lucrative career as a stallion.

Is Bob Baffert allowed to run in Kentucky?

Yes, he can run at Keeneland and at Kentucky Downs. But he can’t currently run at Churchill Downs Inc. tracks, which include Churchill Downs, Turfway Park and Ellis Park. Baffert is in the midst of a two-year ban from CDI tracks, something that still will be litigated long after the two years is over.

CDI issued the ban after Medina Spirit, last year’s initial Kentucky Derby winner, tested positive for a legal medication but not legal on race day. Baffert has contended the horse was administered betamethasone by a topical ointment, not by injection.

Medina Spirit eventually was disqualified and Baffert suspended by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission for 90 days, which he already has served and is still litigating. So, these will be Baffert’s first races in Kentucky since last May.

Will this tell us who will win the Kentucky Derby?

Probably not. Only twice has the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. Street Sense did it in 2006/2007 and Nyquist did it in 2015/2016. It’s a long time between November and May. Some horses just don’t develop. Many get injured. Others just can’t make the distance increase from 1 1/16 miles in the Juvenile to 1¼ miles in the Derby.

Corniche, last year’s Juvenile winner, missed the entire Triple Crown season, raced one more time and was retired. Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify didn’t run in the Juvenile.

Cave Rock, for Baffert, is expected to be the favorite, having won all three of his races, two of them Grade 1 stakes.

Which is the second-most interesting race?

There are a few races that have good story lines, one of them is the Sprint, which has last year’s champion Aloha West going up against Jack Christopher and Jackie’s Warrior.

But there should be a lot of attention on the Distaff, the race for the best fillies and mares. A lot of interest will be paid to Nest, a 3-year-old running against older horses. She ran against the boys and finished second in the Belmont Stakes and then followed that with three consecutive wins, including two Grade 1s.

Mo Donegal, with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., pulls away from Nest, with Jose Ortiz, before winning the Belmont Stakes on June 11 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

She will be going against two accomplished 4-year-olds in Malathaat and Clairiere, who finished third and fourth, respectively, in last year’s Distaff. Also in the race is Secret Oath, the feel-good winner of the Kentucky Oaks for trainer Wayne Lukas. She also tried running against the boys and finished fourth in the Preakness. She hasn’t won since the Oaks, so she might be overmatched.

Will weather be a factor?

It should be perfect racing weather. On Friday there is a projected high of 74 degrees and a low of 56. There is a chance of rain Saturday but it is supposed to be early and late. Otherwise, you can expect a high of 72 and a low of 50. Keeneland last played host to the Breeders’ Cup in 2020, meaning it has had the event two of the last three years. In 2020 there was no crowd because of pandemic restrictions, which is why they were given it so soon after that event.

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