Flightline: A Secretariat-like performance in an unseen career


Last Saturday night a four-year-old colt named Flightline won the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, a stately old seaside racetrack just north of San Diego, steeped in racing history, and where – like at Saratoga in upstate New York – for several weeks every summer racing is a vibrant and essential enterprise. Overflow crowds, A-list trainers and jockeys, and a pervasive and buoyant sense that something important is taking place, and must be consumed. There is a time machine here (and there) – and it is always 1939.

In this place, Flightline delivered a performance so stunning that it is not easily contextualized. (More to come on this issue, but if you believe that no horse should be mentioned in the same paragraph as Secretariat, even without intimating equivalence, you’d best find your fainting couch.) Running for just the fifth time in his career, and for the first time at a distance of more than one mile and the first time around two turns (and just the third time at more than six furlongs), Flightline rendered a field of able, expensive, and accomplished rivals irrelevant. (Characterization of these opponents has already become a lively subplot in the Flightline oeuvre, with the cynical among us asking the eternal wizened horseplayer’s question: Who did he beat? Since you asked, he beat Country Grammer, who won the Dubai World Cup in March; and Express Train, who has five graded stakes wins. Maybe not Kelso and Damascus, but solid racehorses.)

Measurables: Flightline’s final margin of victory was 19¼ lengths. He strolled through a half-mile in a solid 46.06 seconds before taking the lead – “Flightline doesn’t want to wait,” called race announcer Trevor Denman, no novice at this – and reaching three-quarters in a very fast 1:09.97. By comparison, the crushing Kentucky Derby pace that set up Rich Strike’s come-from-behind win was 1:10.34 for three-quarters, although faster from the start at 21.78 and 45.36, but Flightline’s second quarter was a screw-tightening 22.64, almost a second faster than the Derby’s 23.58 seconds. Different race shapes, but both very fast early, in a 10-furlong race. Flightline finished in 1:59.28, just .17 off the Del Mar track record despite being geared down significantly in the last sixteenth of a mile by jockey Flavien Prat. There’s little doubt he could have run 1:58-something, which is rare air. (*Those same wizened horseplayers like to say that time only matters in jail, because every track is different, and even the same track on different days or different races on the same day. Fair enough. But 1:59.28, jogging home, is fast. It just is.) His performance was given a Beyer Speed Figure of 126, which according to the Daily Racing Form, which publishes the figures, is the second-highest number since eponymous BSF creator Andrew Beyer took his numbers public in 1991 – and the highest since Ghostzapper’s 128 in the 2004 Iselin Stakes at Monmouth Park.

All of this provides (mostly) objective context, and it is overwhelming.

But another form of context is more subjective, and more emotionally powerful – visceral, immutable, transformative, and racing fans know it when they see it. It is a vision of equine speed, efficiency, dominance – and yes, beauty, too – that moves a witness to gulp, and creates a moment that will be retold into old age. A tremendous machine moment. Flightline gifted such a moment to his sport on Saturday. He loitered around the first turn off the right flank of Extra Hope, at 45-1 the longest shot in the five-horse field, before running off on his own. By the middle of the turn, his lead was a dozen lengths. Prat barely moved, except to shake the reins twice, with no more vigor than a beachgoer shaking sand off a towel; he never considered his whip. Prat looked back once, inside the eighth pole, and then again at the sixteenth pole, before rising from his saddle ever so slightly, his work done. Who did he beat? Who cares?

Okay. Let’s be clear on something: Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont victory, by 31 lengths in a still-ungodly 2:24 for 1 ½ miles, is the greatest thoroughbred performance in history. Fin. And maybe Secretariat is the greatest thoroughbred in history – but there’s a discussion on that topic, involving Man O’War, Citation, Dr. Fager, Spectacular Bid, Ruffian … and at least a handful of others. (Don’t @ me for not name-checking your personal favorite.) Writ large, there is no blasphemy – in fact, there is joy – in comparing performances to Secretariat’s Belmont, without in any way diminishing Big Red’s work. Arrogate’s 2017 Travers. Ghostzapper’s aforementioned Iselin. Zenyatta’s 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Many others. It’s also not blasphemous to argue that Flightline’s was the best since ’73. (**Racing fans of a certain age get very emotional when Secretariat is asked to slide over and make room on the couch for other horses and other moments, but if we aren’t willing to occasionally consider updating and adding to our greatest-ever lists, we’d still be calling Otto Graham the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and hell, maybe he was, but at least we look under the hood now and then).

But here’s the problem with all of this: (And it is a problem). It’s only hardcore racing fans who are dialed in to this discussion at all, because the Pacific Classic took place on the Saturday evening of the Labor Day holiday weekend, which also was the first weekend of the college football season (post time was roughly late in the second quarter of the Ohio State-Notre Dame game). The Pacific Classic was broadcast only on the FanDuel Network, formerly TVG, which is a valuable resource for fans and (more so) bettors, but its audience is miniscule compared to more mainstream networks (including NBC, who is paying me to write this column). In this regard, Flightline’s virtuoso performance was a tree-falling-in-the-woods moment.

It also was not a Triple Crown race, or more to the point, it was not the Kentucky Derby. Because when it comes to racing’s share of the sports audience, there is the Derby, the Triple Crown, and there is everything else. On Saturday evening I Tweeted that “… many more civilians are familiar with one-hit Derby wonder Rich Strike than jaw-dropping superstar Flightline.” I could get 3-5 on that statement. It is a painful quirk of modern racing that the Triple Crown – and to be fair, that’s 80% the Derby – has swallowed the sport whole, in much the same way that the NCAA Tournament has swallowed college basketball whole. An unintended consequence of this reality in racing is that horses who mature into excellence – or transcendence – at age four or five (or even past the Triple Crown races at three) run smack into a closed window of opportunity.

How many 21st-century “older” horses have broken through the barrier that separates hardcore fans from mainstream sports fans? I’m gonna say: One. Zenyatta. Because she was female? Maybe. Because she came from behind? Possibly. Because she so heartbreakingly came up inches short in her final race? Probably not, but that was some moment. The Triple Crown captures eyes and ears; and then casual fans wait for the next one while hardcore fans wander into the weeds.

And, this, too, is complex. The Triple Crown, and especially the Derby, is good business. Last year’s Derby telecast (on NBC) averaged almost 16 million viewers, which is in the range of some Sunday NFL Games and many NCAA Tournament games. It’s tempting to suggest that this is evidence that there is an audience for racing, but it might just mean that there is an audience for the Derby, which is an event around which civilians (non-horse fans) schedule mint julep-soaked parties on their patios. It’s half sporting event, and half TV event.

Which is why it’s so dispiriting that Flightline has gone relatively unnoticed. (His tour de force in the Metropolitan Mile was seen on NBC’s broadcast of the Belmont Stakes undercard, by far his biggest audience, but that was a non-Triple Crown Belmont, and thus modestly viewed, by network standards). Other side of that coin: Flightline has raced only five times in his life, and missed his Derby altogether. You can’t watch what’s not happening.

But it’s not that simple, either. Earlier this week, I talked with John Sadler, Flightline’s respected trainer. “I read a lot, I listen to a lot, like anybody else,’’ he said. “I know people want him to run more often. I’m sure people would have liked to see Muhammad Ali box every two weeks. My guiding principle has always been to do what’s best for the horse.”

It’s harsh to say that Flightline has been fragile, and too ethereal to say that he’s been unlucky. Both are in play. His growth was stunted early when he dragged his butt across a sharp edge on a barn door as a yearling in Florida, opening a deep, six-inch wound, from which he still bears a vertical scar. He didn’t start training until December of his 2-year-old year, and didn’t make his first start until 10 days before the 2021 Derby, far too late to catch up to the Triple Crown. This year, he had a foot issue in the early spring, delaying his debut until the Met Mile, in which he checked twice and still rolled away. So: He’s had some issues, and Sadler has been cautious with him. Both of these can be true.

“The idea that you can run at this level and run all the time,” says Sadler, “that’s just not fair. These efforts are so big, it takes time to come back to that height.” Like the rest of us, he marvels at what he sees. “People ask me when I knew he was special,” says Sadler. “Day one. My assistant (and exercise rider) Juan Leyva, got off him and said, ‘This is the best horse you’ve ever had.’ He’s got beautiful action, a big engine, and he’s got want.”

There’s an elephant in this tack room, of course. Flightline is not likely to become more exposed to the broader sports world anytime soon, or ever. He won’t run again until the Nov. 5 Breeders Cup Classic at Keeneland (and on NBC), where he will face Epicenter, the best 3-year-old in training; and Life Is Good, the best Eastern older horse. (Sign me up for this). After that? “No decision,” says Sadler.          But we’ve seen this movie previously, haven’t we? Flightline has won a little less than $1.4 million on the racetrack; he’s worth many multiples of that number as a stallion. “Nothing has been decided,” said Sadler, “but I’m sensitive to both sides of this.” Breeding is the economic engine of sport, but does little to build a fan base chasing the high of moments like Saturday’s. Breeding is antiseptic and (thankfully) inaccessible to the public, an irresolvable problem. We can hope Flightline runs another year, or two, but we’re dupes if we expect it.

Best case scenario: Flightline runs another three or four races, into next year. Worst case: One more. In the current racing-and-content ecosystem, there’s no path to mainstream fame. He lives in a niche, greatness largely unseen. Maybe one of his foals will win the Derby.

Churchill Downs moves meet to Ellis Park to examine protocols following 12 horse deaths

churchill downs
Michael Clevenger and Erik Mohn/USA TODAY NETWORK

Churchill Downs will suspend racing on Wednesday and move the remainder of its spring meet to Ellis Park in order to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of safety and surface protocols in the wake of 12 horse fatalities the past month at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

No single factor has been identified as a potential cause for the fatalities or pattern detected, according to a release, but the decision was made to relocate the meet “in an abundance of caution.”

“What has happened at our track is deeply upsetting and absolutely unacceptable,” Churchill Downs Inc. CEO Bill Carstanjen said in Friday’s release. “We need to take more time to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all of the details and circumstances so that we can further strengthen our surface, safety and integrity protocols.”

Racing will continue at Churchill Downs through Sunday before shifting to the CDI-owned racing and gaming facility in Henderson, Kentucky. Ellis Park’s meet was scheduled to start July 7 and run through Aug. 27 but will now expand with Friday’s announcement.

Ellis Park will resume racing on June 10.

The move comes a day after track superintendent Dennis Moore conducted a second independent analysis of Churchill Downs’ racing and training surfaces as part of an emergency summit called this week by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) with the track and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Meetings took place in Lexington, Kentucky, and at the Louisville track.

The head of the federally created oversight agency suggested ahead of the summit that it could recommend pausing the meet and that Churchill Downs would accept that recommendation.

Churchill Downs’ release stated that expert testing raised no concerns and concluded that the surface was consistent with the track’s prior measurements. Even so, it chose to relocate “in alignment” with HISA’s recommendation to suspend the meet to allow more time for additional investigation.

“We appreciate their thoughtfulness and cooperation through these challenging moments,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said in a statement. “We will continue to seek answers and work with everyone involved to ensure that horses are running safely at Churchill Downs again in the near future.”

Carstanjen insisted that relocating the remainder of the spring meet to Ellis Park would maintain the industry ecosystem with minor disruption. He also said he was grateful to Kentucky horsemen for their support as they work to find answers.

Rick Hiles, the president of Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, questioned the move, especially since there’s no conclusive evidence that Churchill Downs’ surface is the problem.

“We all want to find solutions that will improve safety for horses,” Hiles said in a statement. “However, we need to discuss allowing trainers and veterinarians to use therapeutic medications that greatly lessen the risk of breakdowns.

“Drastic steps, such as relocating an active race meet, should only be considered when it is certain to make a difference.”

The latest development comes a day after Churchill Downs and HISA each implemented safety and performance standards to address the spate of deaths.

HISA will conduct additional post-entry screening of horses to identify those at increased risk for injury. Its Integrity and Welfare Unit also will collect blood and hair samples for all fatalities for use while investigating a cause.

Churchill Downs announced it would immediately limit horses to four starts during a rolling eight-week period and impose ineligibility standards for poor performers. The track is also pausing incentives, such as trainer start bonuses and limiting purse payouts to the top five finishers instead of every finisher.

Forte works out, waits for Belmont Stakes clearance


NEW YORK — Forte, the early Kentucky Derby favorite who was scratched on the day of the race, worked out in preparation for a possible start in the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

Under regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr., Forte worked five-eighths of a mile for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. It was the colt’s second workout since being scratched from the Derby on May 6.

“It seems like he’s maintained his fitness level,” Pletcher said. “It seems like everything is in good order.”

Forte was placed on a mandatory 14-day veterinary list after being scratched from the Derby because of a bruised right front foot. In order to be removed from the list, the colt had to work in front of a state veterinarian and give a blood sample afterward, the results of which take five days.

“There’s protocols in place and we had to adhere to those and we’re happy that everything went smoothly,” Pletcher said. “We felt confident the horse was in good order or we wouldn’t have been out there twice in the last six days, but you still want to make sure everything went smoothly and we’re happy everything did go well.”

Pletcher said Kingsbarns, who finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby, will miss the Belmont. The colt is showing signs of colic, although he is fine, the trainer said.

Another Pletcher-trained horse, Prove Worthy, is under consideration for the Belmont. He also has Tapit Trice, who finished seventh in the Derby, being pointed toward the Belmont.