Flightline: A Secretariat-like performance in an unseen career

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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.

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

RELATED: Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

RELATED: Olympiad cruises to Jockey Club Gold Cup victory

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

RELATED: Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!

Pegasus on Jan. 28, Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Gulfstream Park announced the schedule for the 2022-23 Championship Meet, highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 28.

Also on Pegasus day: The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, as well as the $500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Gulfstream’s top Kentucky Derby prep race, the $1 million Florida Derby, will be run on April 1 as part of a card with 10 stakes races. Other top 3-year-old preps at Gulfstream in early 2023 include the $150,000 Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 1, the $250,000 Holy Bull on Feb. 4 and the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on March 4.

The Pegasus is returning for a seventh time. The format has changed several times in the race’s infancy; the purse structure for the Pegasus World Cup no longer requires owners to put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate for what was, at its inception, the world’s richest race with a purse that reached $16 million.

This much has remained constant: Winning the Pegasus changes a horse’s resume. No Pegasus winner has ever finished worse than sixth in the yearlong earnings among North American horses, and two past winners – Arrogate and Gun Runner – are two of the three highest-earning thoroughbreds in U.S. history.

Gulfstream’s Championship Meet runs from Dec. 26 through April 2, featuring 60 stakes races, 35 of them graded, and worth a combined $13.6 million.