LEXINGTON, Kentucky – At its most affecting, horse racing brings tears. It brings them up from a place deep in the souls of both those humans who play the game and those who worship it, who both beseech effort and grace from the animals who run, and simultaneously seek to protect them, because they cannot protect themselves. Tears of awe, for what they can do. Tears of thanks, for what they give. Tears of sadness, for what can befall them. Tears because we don’t fully understand any of it, even when we look in their eyes and they look in ours. Sometimes all of it in a single day.
So it was on Saturday afternoon here at Keeneland, a pristine boutique racetrack surrounded by rolling hills and foundational breeding farms in central Kentucky, on the second and final day of the 39th Breeders Cup World Championships, the so-called Super Bowl of thoroughbred racing. A young boy watched from his wheelchair as the horse with whom he had formed an inexplicable bond, won his race with a furious finish. Two times gifted horses left the track not on four legs, but on the four wheels of a horse ambulance, both alive but damaged in some way, reminders of the cost the sport can extract. And late in the day, under leaden skies, and buffeted by eerie and relentless winds, a greatness of such force that it resists description.
The last first: At 5:44 p.m., a majestic 4-year-old colt named Flightline floated beneath the finish wire to win the 1 1/4-mile, $6 million Classic, the climactic race of the event and the season, and in this case, the validating performance of Flightline’s perfect, six-race career (which may or may not be finished). In victory, Flightline chased and then dismissed the very accomplished Life Is Good through blazing splits, and then won by a Classic record 8 ¼ lengths. Three times jockey Flavien Prat looked back – first while chasing Life Is Good down the backstretch, then while gearing up to pass him on the final turn, and finally just 10 jumps from the finish, while gearing down as the Keeneland grandstand shook in – what is the right word? – adoration.
Beaten trainers spilled onto the Kentucky loam to meet their horses. There was two-time Kentucky Derby winner Doug O’Neill, whose 4-year-old Hot Rod Charlie finished sixth in the eight-horse field. “That’s a freakish, freakish horse,” said O’Neill. “Just amazing. I haven’t seen a better one in my lifetime.” There was Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, whose Olympiad worked his way up to second behind Flightline. “That’s a pretty special horse,” said Mott. “He chased down a fast horse and then kept going and drew off. You just don’t see that. He’s comparable to any of the great ones I’ve seen. Very, very special.” And there was Jimmy Barnes, assistant to Bob Baffert, who has worked with two Triple Crown winners and a long list of sensational runners. “I’ve put my hands on great ones,” Barnes said. Then he nodded toward Flightline, “He’s a great one.”
Flightline’s had been a vexing career. It had been unquestionably sensational – five victories over 17 months at distances ascending from a six-furlong sprint to a stunning 19 ¼-length win in the Sept. 3 Pacific Classic at Del Mar at the small-c classic distance of 1 ¼ miles – a race that evoked memories of the great Secretariat’s transcendent Belmont from 1973. He had won his races by an aggregate 62 ¾ lengths. But because he missed the Triple Crown races as a 3-year-old with nagging injuries, his career had unfolded largely unbeknownst to the mainstream sports audience. And there had been just five races, in which he had not been pressed. There was a question mark.
On Saturday, breaking from a starting position at the top of the Keeneland homestretch, Flightline settled in just outside Life Is Good, who had come into the race with three consecutive summer and fall victories, including two Grade I races – A fast and worthy foe. They zipped together through a quarter mile in 22.55 seconds, a half mile in 45.47 and three-quarters in 1:09.62, the second-fastest six-furlong split in Classic history (behind champion Skip Away’s 1:09.60 25 years ago). They were splits that could have cooked both horses – “He was pressed today,” said Terry Finley, whose West Point Thoroughbreds owns 17 percent of Flightline – but they cooked only Life Is Good. “He was traveling well…. And just couldn’t see it out,” said Life Is Good’s Hall of Fame trainer, Todd Pletcher. Sham, cast aside by Secretariat in ’73, would understand.
Prat moved alongside Life Is Good late in the far turn and then drew away with sudden ease. Dead even became two lengths, then four, then six. The crowd gasped, then roared. The hype became real. The question mark disappeared. The aggregate victory total was stretched to 71 lengths. Mythic legacy-keepers punched the insert key and sought room for a new name.
In a tiny press conference room, 20 minutes after the race, Flightline’s 66-year-old California-based trainer, John Sadler fell into an office chair, clad in a suit and a wool jacket that was too warm for the day. He has had good horses in the past – he won the Classic in 2018 with Accelerate. But this was different, and has been different from the start. “His brilliance is normal,” said Sadler. “He’s just a remarkable, remarkable racehorse. How do you describe greatness like this? He’s one of those great American racehorses that comes along every 20 or 30 years.”
Sadler paused. “I tried to be a good steward for this horse.” He began to cry. Tears. “If you’re good to your horses, they’re good to you.” I asked Sadler, normally a taciturn man who does not seek fame from his work, what had prompted his tears. “It’s the culmination of a life’s work,” said Sadler, still visibly moved. “Most trainers never get a horse like this. It’s just blown me away.”
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There are questions, both ethereal – where to place Flightline on the long list of great horses – and practical: Will he ever run again?
To the first question, it is simply impossible to compare horses across eras. The reaction of rival trainers (see above) is evidence that his greatness is real, and rare and historic in some way. Certainly he ranks with the greats in the post-Secretariat era: Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, (whose name and trainer, Bud Delp, Sadler invoked after the race), Skip Away, Ghostzapper, Zenyatta, and Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify. Where he ranks among these is unknowable, owing to the changing ecosystem of the sport.
That ecosystem is why Flightline might not run again. He is immensely valuable as a stallion, and can earn far more in that role than on the racetrack. Finley and principal owner Kosta Hronis (who owns 37 percent with other family members) both said the partners will meet soon and make a decision. It has already been decided that Flightline will stand at Lane’s End Farm, just 10 miles from Keeneland. The variable is when? “We’ll talk [Sunday],” said Finley. “We honestly have not had that discussion yet. I know, personally, I have not been able to wrap my mind around that decision, as we’ve been in the middle of this.” Four years ago Justify was syndicated into stallion duty for $75 million; Flightline’s arrangement will be different than a straight syndication, because many of the partners are staying in for the breeding piece. But the numbers will be stratospherically high and not conducive to continued racing.
His was the most telling story of the day, but not the only one. As Flightline tracked Life Is Good down the backside of the racetrack, jockey Joel Rosario brought 3-year-old Epicenter, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and winner of the Travers, to an abrupt stop. He was taken from the track in an ambulance. Just before 8 p.m. Saturday night, it was announced that, “Epicenter was found to have sustained a repairable displaced condylar fracture to his right forelimb. He is settled for the night and will undergo surgery in the morning.” His long-term prognosis is unknown. Three races earlier, 5-year-old gelding Domestic Spending suffered an apparent pelvic injury in the Mile, and was also vanned off the track. He is at a Lexington equine hospital. His long-term prognosis is also unknown.
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Yet early in the day came another type of racing moment, delivered by Cody’s Wish, a 4-year-old colt named as a yearling for Cody Dorman, a boy who suffers from the genetic disorder Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome, which has left him unable to walk or speak. Cody’s Wish and Cody bonded in a way that remains life-affirming but unexplained and early Saturday Cody’s wish rolled from behind in the stretch and won the Dirt Mile at the wire. Cody, now 16, watched with his family. “We celebrated together,” said his mother, Kelly. “Through the tears.”
Bill Mott, a parent himself, trains Cody’s Wish. I asked him if this moment was an example case of what racing can do for humans. “Not racing,” Mott said. “Horses.”
Nearly five hours later, with darkness falling on Keeneland, another horse walked up the homestretch, toward a barn at the bottom of a bluegrass hill. His name was Flightline, and his work was done, for the day, and as a racehorse, perhaps forever. Smartphone cameras were lifted into the air and pointed in his direction, humans capturing an image and holding a moment.