In crowning moment, Flightline delivers race to remember at emotional Breeders’ Cup Classic


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.

Road to the Kentucky Derby: Forte seems dominant ahead of Florida Derby prep race


The numbers speak for themselves. Horses trained by Todd Pletcher have earned more purse money (over $455 million) than those trained by any other person in the history of thoroughbred racing. He has won with an impressive 23% of his starters, and 52% have finished first, second or third.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, however, Pletcher becomes a mere mortal. From 62 career starters, he has won the race twice, with two seconds, and four horses who finished 3rd. Many of Pletcher’s Derby horses were longshots who were in the race primarily so their owners could have a horse in America’s biggest race. His two Derby winners, while they were reasonably backed at the windows, were far from odds-on favorites. When Super Saver won in 2010, he paid $18.00 for a $2 win ticket. Always Dreaming, his 2017 winner, was a very lukewarm favorite who returned $11.40 to win.  Many racing fans are used to seeing Pletcher’s horses win at short odds, primarily in New York and Florida. They might be shocked to find out that when Always Dreaming won the 2017 Derby, he was the shortest-odds horse that Pletcher had ever saddled in the Kentucky Derby, despite having odds just under 5-1.

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This Saturday, he will saddle Forte in the Florida Derby. Forte will enter the race on a four-race win streak, with those wins coming in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes. He is a 4/5 morning line favorite, and if he wins the race, he should move forward to Louisville as a very strong favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Clearly, he would be the shortest-priced horse Pletcher has ever had in the race, but that almost wasn’t the case.

In 2010, we know that Pletcher scored a mild upset in the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver. He was definitely not the best three-year-old in Pletcher’s barn. That year, he had a horse named Eskendereya, who seemed as unbeatable as Forte does now. He was set to enter the Derby off a three-race win streak. That streak included an 8 ½ length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and a 9 ¾ length win in the Wood Memorial. The Pletcher barn was devastated when Eskendereya suffered a career-ending leg injury in training one week before the Kentucky Derby. So, instead of saddling the big favorite in the race, he took his shot with four other horses. As the chart tells us, Super Saver benefitted from a rail-skimming ride by Calvin Borel and gave Pletcher his first Derby winner.

As far as I am concerned, any discussion of Forte and the Florida Derby should begin with the concept of professionalism in a racehorse. In one respect you can call him more professional than (dare I say?) Secretariat. Big Red was brilliant, and he showed the ability to win on the engine and from off the pace. Forte’s three career races around two turns, however, are a virtual carbon copy of each other.

As a two-year-old, in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, he was in fifth place after six furlongs, sitting 2 ½ lengths off the lead, and he went on to win by a neck. That race set him up for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the Juvenile, he was again in fifth after six furlongs, sitting four lengths off the lead before he went on to win by 1 ½ lengths. It’s been said that race horses mature the most between ages two and three, and Forte’s only race this year showed that maturity. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, he was in fourth after six furlongs, sitting about two lengths off the lead, and then he blew by the field, going on to win by 4 ½ lengths.

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This concept of professionalism in a racehorse is based in part on how well the game plan of the trainer is executed by the horse. Forte is a horse that has clearly used his fast cruising speed and his ability to relax off the pace to his advantage. Looking at those three wins he posted around two turns, they show that Forte’s natural ability allows him to idle like a Cadillac behind front-runners, and he has a growing ability to pass his competition on the far turn and power through the stretch on his way to victory. The Pletcher game plan, nurtured through the experience of 62 starts in America’s most important race, has been very convincing thus far.

Working in Forte’s favor even more is the fact that there are several horses in the race who tend to run on the front end, which should set up jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. to make Forte’s signature move to the lead as the front-runners start to tire. Skeptics might point to Forte’s journey from the #11 post as a reason to think he might have a problem here, but the fact that he relaxes in races and has a high cruising speed should allow Ortiz to get a mid-pack position to pounce from.

As for the rest of the field, the two most likely to finish underneath Forte in exotic wagers are Fort Bragg and Cyclone Mischief. Fort Bragg is a horse who sold for $700,000 as a yearling. He was formerly trained by Bob Baffert and has been transferred to the care of Tim Yakteen. He should be near the front end early and is likely to have the class to last longer that some of the other forwardly-placed runners.  Another who has a good chance to hit the board is the Dale Romans-trained Cyclone Mischief. He has raced against some of the top horses of his age group and was third to Forte in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by nearly 6 lengths. Although he was on the lead in that race, I expect him to sit a couple of lengths off the pace here. There are two longer-priced entries here that could hit the board to fill out some tickets. They are the lightly-raced Mage (fourth in the Fountain of Youth with a troubled trip) and West Coast Cowboy, who has tried hard in all three career races and is 20-1 on the morning line.

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For those who think they might be able to beat Forte, consider Todd Pletcher’s record in the Florida Derby. He is the leading trainer in the history of the race with six wins, and five of those have been in the last nine years.

If there is a theme to the Derby prep season thus far, it is Pletcher, Pletcher, Pletcher. In addition to Forte, he trains Kingsbarns, the front-running winner of the Louisiana Derby, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice. Tapit Trice, who will run in the Blue Grass Stakes on NBC a week from Saturday, is an intriguing horse who won the Tampa Bay Derby with come-from-behind style. As talented as Forte is, we don’t know how talented Tapit Trice can be, as he seems to mature more with each start. At Tampa Bay, he was eighth in the middle of the stretch and got home to win by an easy two lengths. He is an 8-1 second choice in the most recent Derby futures pool, with Forte favored at 3-1.

It is always fascinating when the early Derby favorite has his final prep race. We’ll have to sit back and watch on Saturday to determine whether Forte will continue his dominance or if he will hit a bump in the road. His talent and his ability to duplicate his running style from race to race lead me to think that his growth and maturity will continue to be on display in the Florida Derby, and he’ll advance to Kentucky a huge favorite for America’s biggest race.

How to Watch the Florida Derby

  • Date: Saturday, April 1st
  • Time: 6pm ET
  • TV Network: CNBC
  • Streaming: Peacock

When is the 2023 Kentucky Derby?

The 149th Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, May 6th, and will air across the networks of NBC and Peacock.

Horse racing’s national anti-doping program starts

NBC Sports

Horse racing’s efforts to clean up the sport and level the playing field take another step forward with the launch of a new anti-doping program.

It’s an attempt to centralize the drug testing of racehorses and manage the results, as well as dole out uniform penalties to horses and trainers instead of the current patchwork rules that vary from state to state.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) was created by the federal government nearly three years ago. It has two programs: racetrack safety, which went into effect in July, and anti-doping and medication control.

“It’s one standard. You can be in Kentucky, you can be in Ohio, you can be in California and you’re going to be judged by the same standard,” HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus said.

HISA’s Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit – its independent enforcement agency – has reached agreements with all of the state racing commissions and/or racetracks that will have live racing as of Monday.

Seven of the biggest racing states – Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma – will continue to use their current staff to collect samples.

In Arizona, Illinois and Ohio, there is no signed voluntary agreement with HISA, so it contracted directly with either current staff or hired its own personnel to collect samples. Post-race testing only in New York will be handled this way.

States that have live racing after mid-April are in discussion with the enforcement agency, HISA said.

The agency will work with accredited labs in Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania and Kentucky to analyze samples.

“For the first time, racing’s labs will be harmonized and held to the same performance standards nationwide,” said Ben Mosier, executive director of the enforcement agency. “Thoroughbred racehorses will be tested for the same substances at the same levels, regardless of where they are located or compete.”

Unlike the central offices that govern the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, the 38 U.S. racing states have long operated under rules that vary from track to track. Horses, owners, trainers and jockeys move frequently between states to compete. Locales would honor punishments meted out elsewhere, but inconsistencies created confusion and made it possible to game the system.

Lazarus said that in talking with horsemen they want three things from HISA: Catch the cheaters, be realistic about medication, and be aware of environmental contaminants that trainers cannot control but can trigger positive tests.

“That’s exactly what our program does,” she said recently.

HISA has been met with resistance in its short existence.

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled it unconstitutional, saying Congress gave too much authority to the group it established to oversee the racing industry. Congress tweaked the wording of the original legislation to fix that. It also gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to oversee HISA.

Legal challenges in Texas and Louisiana to HISA resulted in the federal appeals court preventing it from operating, so state regulations will continue to govern the sport. Racetracks in Texas and Nebraska have chosen not to broadcast their simulcast signals out of state, so HISA currently has no authority to regulate them, Lazarus said.

As a result of the ongoing legal issues surrounding HISA, the anti-doping program won’t begin in every state on Monday as Lazarus had hoped.

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “We have to change some things, we have to see how some things go.”

There’s also been vocal opposition among some in the industry over the prospect of sweeping change – as well as its cost to racetracks, horse owners and trainers, and the impact it will have on business.

“They’ve been taking away certain medications, therapy machines, things that are truly beneficial,” said trainer Bret Calhoun, whose stable operates in Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas. “They’re having the opposite effect of what they’re saying … safety of the horse and rider. They’re doing absolutely the opposite.”

Calhoun spoke earlier this month at the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association national convention in Louisiana.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry was even more blunt.

“At the core of HISA is this: a handful of wealthy players wish to control the sport through a one-size-fits-all, pay-to-play scheme that will decimate the inclusive culture of horse racing,” he said at the convention.

Lazarus counters the criticism, saying, “We’re there to make racing better.”

She has said she’s aiming for transparent investigations and speedier resolutions of disputes. And Lazarus has spent much of her first year on the job trying to “overcommunicate and overeducate.”

“I’m really hopeful that the message is getting through,” she said.

There will be no trial period for infractions under the new rules. Veterinarians who administer medications to horses have had to get up to speed on the regulations as well as trainers who are ultimately responsible for what goes into their horses.

“Change I think is always hard,” Lazarus said, “and this is like seismic change.”