For horse racing to have any chance of thriving, it needs a star. Those in the sport are counting on a 4-year-old colt named Flightline to fill that spot, even if it’s for a brief time.
Undefeated in only five starts, the Southern California-based Flightline has won his races by a staggering total of 62¾ lengths. He’s also the main attraction in the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Keeneland Race Course, which might be his final race.
His owners say they haven’t made a decision on next year, although with the prospect of breeding rights approaching $100 million, it would be surprising if races as a 5-year-old beyond the Pegasus World Cup in January, if that.
Flightline is said to be a once in a generation horse, but even if he dominates the 1¼-mile Classic like a 3-5 favorite should, will he be remembered as one of the greats or just a horse of the moment?
Racing historian Jon White is among those who say Flightline hasn’t done enough and would need to come back to race another year to be considered one of the greats.
“I share the opinion of many that Flightline needs to accomplish more than he has in order to ascend into the higher echelon of the all-time greats,” said White, who is the morning-line maker at Santa Anita and Del Mar and has performed that task at seven Breeders’ Cups. “If he crushes his Breeders’ Cup Classic opponents and goes on to pile up lopsided victories next year without ever losing, it certainly would go a long way to strengthen the case that he deserves a high ranking among racing’s all-time greats.
“I must say that I don’t think there is any possible way for Flightline to displace one of the four horses on my personal Mt. Rushmore — Man o’ War, Secretariat, Citation and Kelso, which is how I rank them in order.”
The two statistics that have at least put the horse in the historical conversation are his total victory lengths and his five straight consecutive wins.
“Not only did Flightline win Del Mar’s Pacific Classic by a goosebumps-producing 19¼ lengths, he has won his first five races by a combined 62 ¾ lengths, which does rank right up there with anybody in the history of racing in this country,” White said. “How does it stack up against, say, Man o’ War? Man o’ War won his first five races by a combined 14 lengths.
“Unlike Flightline, the vast majority of this country’s all-time greats — horses such as War Admiral, Count Fleet, Citation, Tom Fool, Swaps, Kelso, Dr. Fager, Secretariat, Forego, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid — did not win all of their first five starts.”
Trainer John Sadler is content to let others determine Flightline’s place in racing history.
“That’s kind of up for the sportswriters [to answer] and everybody is going to have an opinion on that,” Sadler said. “I think you certainly have to rate his race in the Pacific Classic as one of the great performances any thoroughbred has ever run.
“Whether you pick Secretariat’s Belmont or any of those really great races by Spectacular Bid or whoever your favorite horse was of all time, his performance in that race is one of the best ever. And then, as far as where he stands, that’s up for the pundits.”
Bob Baffert, who has won the Classic four times including in 2015 with American Pharoah, compares Flightline to his first Triple Crown winner.
“Now I know how people felt when they ran against America Pharoah,” said Baffert, who will run Taiba in the Classic. “[Flightline] is like Pharoah [if he had run] at 4. He moves like him. He’s an extraordinary horse that just moves over the ground. And when he takes off, he just takes off. The only way a horse like that gets beat is bad racing luck. Racing luck can get them all beat.”
The field for the Classic is very strong. Epicenter, winner of the Travers Stakes and second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, is the 5-1 second choice. Life Is Good, who has won nine of 11 lifetime starts and is expected to set the early pace, is the 6-1 third favorite. Taiba, winner of the Santa Anita Derby and Penn Derby, is listed at 8-1 on the morning line.
Baffert’s expectations for Taiba are modest.
“I’ll be happy if he can run second or third,” Baffert said. “I just hope we beat the other 3-year-olds [Epicenter and Rich Strike]. Taiba likes to run at a target. I just hope he can see the target.”
Expected gusts of up to 40 mph on Saturday could affect front-runners as they run into a headwind down the backstretch, although Flightline doesn’t always make an early move and saves his best for the far turn and stretch.
White points out that Flightline’s speed figure is faster than all previous 374 Breeders’ Cup race winners before this year.
“I just can’t picture him getting beat in the Classic,” White said, then referenced one of Britain’s more infamous horse capers, adding, “unless there is a Shergar-like kidnapping before the race,” White said.
After Saturday, Flightline might be kidnapped to the breeding shed.