Tim Layden

After Damar Hamlin incident, football resumes in a new world

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Soon there will again be football in America. Two NFL games on Saturday, and the rest of the final weekend schedule on Sunday. Some of these games are important (*not really), with 11th-hour playoff ramifications. On Monday night Georgia and TCU will play for the college football national championship, a fascinating matchup of a blue-blooded defending national champion and a genuine party-crashing upstart, ever so rare in the college football world. And on the weekend that follows, the NFL Playoffs begin.

So there will again be football, because football is the most potent entertainment commodity (important words, both together and separately: entertainment, and commodity) in America. And also because Americans do few things better, in 2023, than move forward and beyond things, no matter how unsettling those things might be.  (To use a sports column to list those unsettling – and at times unspeakable — things from which Americans move beyond would be disrespectful. You know what they are). This resilience is disturbing, and yet at the same time, understandable – one can only carry around so much anxiety before shedding a few pounds and lurching forward into the day. This behavior seems both innate and recently perfected, a survival instinct of a very modern variety.

Moving forward with football consumption in this particular moment doesn’t require forgetting what happened last Monday night in Cincinnati – the Bills’ Damar Hamlin’s serious incident and the events and scenes that followed, all of which were unsettling in the extreme. Quite the opposite: None of that should be forgotten. But they require a compartmentalization that allows emotional attachment to football to wriggle back to the surface. This is something football fans have been doing for some time, because immersion in football requires an ongoing acceptance (or dismissal) of the dangers to which players expose themselves on every play, in every game. This, too, has required constant system upgrades, as science teaches more about the sport, and the sport refines its game play, changing its appearance and texture in an effort to make it safer (although not safe, an impossible goal).

But as familiar as Monday night’s images were – the pained faces, the prayer circle, the fans, standing, uncertain, in their replica jerseys and Gameday costumes – they were also palpably heightened. This was worse. We all knew it, instinctively.

Yesterday came the very good news from doctors at the University of Cincinnati, where Hamlin has been treated since collapsing and being resuscitated on the field Monday night, that Hamlin has made significant gains. “It’s been a long and difficult road for the last three days,” Dr. William Knight said. “… He has made a pretty remarkable improvement.” UC doctors said that when Hamlin was first given the opportunity to communicate in writing, he wrote, “Did we win?” Dr. Timothy Pritts answered: “The answer is yes, Damar, you won the game of life.” Doctors also said that Hamlin is “neurologically intact,” and that his damaged lungs have begun to heal. Also significantly, they praised the on-field work of the Bills’ medical and training staffs for their performance under duress. Friday morning came further news that Hamlin’s breathing tube has been removed and that he has been able to speak with his family and even his teammates via FaceTime. In all, a series of extraordinarily uplifting updates.

Doctors also said that Hamlin’s longer term prognosis is unknown and will evolve over time. They said it is much too soon to know if he will play football again, although that doesn’t seem important right now.

Football has endured many tragedies and near tragedies. Players have been concussed and paralyzed. In 1971, long before the phrase “player safety” was part of the sport’s lexicon, Lions’ wide receiver Chuck Hughes, died on the field. An autopsy would reveal arterial blockage that heightened the impact of a blood clot. Generations of players have suffered immensely in the aftermath of their careers, due to both the orthopedic and neurological detritus of the sport. Writ large, this is widely described as the cost of playing a violent game. Drilling down further, keepers of the game on all levels have made genuine efforts in the last decade or more to reduce risk, although that risk will never reach zero and will never get close.  We all know this, too.

In the coming weeks and months, we will surely learn much about Hamlin’s health both before and after his collision with Tee Higgins. Fans will hope to take solace in continued positive updates and perhaps in his return to full health, and they should, very much so. They will also use it to help cushion their own return to full-throated support of a game they love.

The larger question here is whether football simply returns to its baseline: A dangerous game with an immense fan base that reaches into nearly every American demographic and generates enormous revenue. Truly, our national pastime. Whether the endgame for this incident is a gigantic sigh of relief, or if something changes. Pause. Not something in the game itself, because there is very little left to change at this point. Rules have been tweaked to their breaking point; football is a rough game. (Here I’ll write something I have written before: Every fan needs to watch even one series of downs from an NFL or major college game, up close, to appreciate the level of size, speed, power, and commitment to every single hit. It is stunning, and your high school football career does not allow you to appreciate it. It is a different ecosystem altogether).

Not that something, but something else: A fresh level of appreciation for what we’re witnessing while sitting on our couch (or in the press box).

A story: On Nov. 3, 2007, I covered the United States’ Olympic Marathon Trials, which took place in New York City’s Central Park. The Trials were won by Ryan Hall, but the race is remembered much more for the death of 28-year-old Ryan Shay, who collapsed just over five miles into the race and was pronounced dead 40 minutes later at a city hospital. An autopsy showed that Shay had a pre-existing condition — an enlarged heart, with fibrosis (scarring); Shay knew this and had lived with it.

But what I remember most was reporting a story a few days later in which I talked to several other runners who knew Shay and ran in the race. Aside from their shock and sadness, which were very real, they openly questioned how Shay’s death might work its way into their psyches. Distance running is more complex than the general populace understands, but at its foundation is a trust that regardless of the pain, one cannot die, that pain is just pain. Ryan Shay died. Yes, he had those issues at the start. But in the aftermath of his passing, his peers found themselves questioning that foundational trust in their own bodies. I haven’t watched distance running with quite the same mind since.

I thought of this when I heard former Steelers safety Ryan Clark’s remarkable responses on ESPN later Monday evening. “The next time that we get upset at our favorite fantasy player, we should remember that these men are putting their lives on the line to live their dream and tonight Damar Hamlin’s dream became a nightmare not only for himself but for his family and his entire team,” Clark said.

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith spoke to this Thursday: “… This is a business that is operated by humans, breathing humans. And they are people’s sons, their husbands, their fathers.”

And as Clark also told us Monday night: “Tonight we got to see a side of football that is extremely ugly. A side of football that no one ever wants to see or never wants to admit exists.”

That side of football will continue to exist, just like distance runners in the 15 years since Ryan Shay died have continued to press their own limits. But a small ask: Some appreciation. Often over the years when I’ve written about player safety, concussions, rules changes, I’ve been flamed by readers who argue that players are well-compensated to accept the risks inherent in playing a dangerous game. And you know what? That’s true. But perhaps a little appreciation is in order, for the weight of that risk, game after game, day after day, minute after minute. These are superhuman athletes, but just humans, too. Today, they understand more fully than ever that they are also the entertainment, and the commodity that powers the football machine.

So maybe a small drop of empathy in exchange for all those hours of joy. Not just when a player lies in the hospital, but when he does not.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

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

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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.”

RELATED: Catch Flightline in the Breeders’ Cup Classic — he’ll be retired soon

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.

RELATED: How Cody’s Wish got his name and a friend for life

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.

Catch Flightline in the Breeders’ Cup Classic — he’ll be retired soon

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Late Saturday afternoon at Keeneland Race Course, in the undulating hills outside Lexington, undefeated four-year-old colt Flightline will run as the heavy favorite in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. It will probably/likely/maybe/possibly be Flightline’s final race before vanning 10 miles west to Lane’s End Farm, where he will stand as a preposterously valuable stallion and either produce further generations of great horses like him, or slower ones not at all like him; but in either case he will fabulously enrich the already wealthy men, women, and corporations invested in this familial process, who can then do it all over again with another superstar. (There are a range of possibilities for Flightline’s immediate future: He could be retired on the spot, run in the Jan. 28, $3 million Pegasus World Cup, or run for his entire five-year-old season. His owners have not made this announcement, although history – and a certain brand of economic common sense about which many words will follow herein, including, these from thoroughbred owner Mike Repole: “Racing is the Flintstones, not the Jetsons” —  suggest strongly that you’d be wise to get a look on Saturday).

This is intriguing – or agonizing, if you are at all romantic about the sport, or care about its aesthetic – because Flightline is one of the most enthralling racehorses in recent (or even not-so-recent) racing history. He has won all five of his races by a combined margin of 62 ¾ lengths, at distances ascending from a six-furlong sprint to the lower case-c classic distance of 1 ¼-miles. In his last race, he won the Grade I, mile-and-a-quarter Pacific Classic at Del Mar by 19 ¼ lengths, dismissing a very respectable (if not stellar) field and nearly dipping under one minute, 59 seconds (a milestone of sorts) despite getting geared down well before the wire by jockey Flavien Prat.

It was a mesmerizing performance, one of the best in the sport since Secretariat’s Belmont, and evoking similar emotions. The mention of this comparison triggers Big Red loyalists, who need to lighten up; as I wrote a month ago. There’s been no performance better than Secretariat’s, okay? But Flightline’s touched some of those same nerves.

If you happened to see it.

The problem with Flightline, if you want to call it a problem, is that his career has taken place in mainstream obscurity. A freak barn accident and nagging injuries kept him off the racetrack and out of the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown, which is the only path to broad renown for U.S. racehorses in this era. (There have been rare exceptions, but Seabiscuit isn’t walking through that door). His Pacific Classic win took place on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, broadcast by FanDuel TV, which has a small, devoted audience, but caters to racing fans and bettors, not the broader cohort of sports fans. His five races have been spread across 17 months, because he is both fragile and driven. “He puts it out there, every single day,” says David Ingordo, the bloodstock agent who selected Flightline for purchase as a yearling and works in partnership with Lane’s End and owner Bill Farish.

*It is ironically appropriate that Flightline might be racing for the last time at the Breeders’ Cup, a delicious two-day, 14-race festival of stratospherically high-level competition that attracts nearly every top owner, trainer and jockey in the U.S. and Europe, but which takes place as counter programming to college football, on an NFL weekend, in the middle of the World Series. It is a sensational event unfolding in a densely packed sports calendar, and thus consumed largely by the converted.

All of these factors have lent an air of desperation to Flightline’s appearance in the Classic on Saturday – a sense that his unseen greatness must be seen before it is again unseen — forever. (Unless pedigree charts get your blood pumping). The reason for this is simple, but deeply frustrating for fans of the part of the sport that takes place on the racetrack and not in the breeding shed: Flightline (and horses of his class) have far more value as stallions than as racehorses. This has always been true, but has become more true in recent years, with the growth of an aggressively speculative economy, wherein high-powered syndicates begin pursuit of moneymaking stallions in the yearling sales ring.

breeders' cup
Flightline won the 2022 Malibu Stakes by 11 1/2 lengths (Getty Images)

First, a brief primer: Flightline has won $1.4 million on the racetrack, a figure depressed by the fact that he has not run a lot of big-money races; that number will rise to nearly $5 million if he wins the Classic and almost $7 million if he runs and wins the Pegasus. Nevertheless. That’s racing. On the Breeding side, the value of Flightline’s transfer to Lane’s End is not known, but 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify was sold to Coolmore America for $75 million (a deal that altered the industry – keep reading). Flightline is not only a breathtaking racer, but splendidly bred, from the esteemed stallion Tapit. Flightline’s stud fee has not been set, but at a relatively conservative estimate of 150,000 per mating, and 150 mares per year, he would generate $22.5 million every year (until his foals are shown to be slow, in which case the stud fee would be dropped; but also could be raised if they are runners). This is much more than he could make at the racetrack.

Also: If a decision was made to keep Flightline racing, his owners would have to pay – or continue paying – insurance that would cost millions per year. Elliott Walden, the CEO of Winstar Farm, which was majority owner of Justify and a major player in the stallion-and-speculation game, says, “It would have cost $4 million in insurance alone, just to keep Justify on the racetrack. And there is a small inherent risk in racing that is always in the back of your mind.” Risk, as in, an injured horse might or not be able to breed and a dead one definitely cannot. There is also the far-less tragic risk of losing, which also reduces value.

This is why so many successful racehorses are pulled from the racetrack at the peak of their powers and popularity. The list is endless, but consider just this year. Preakness winner Early Voting and Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal have both been retired. American Pharoah, the immensely popular 2015 Triple Crown winner, was retired after the BC Classic. The equally popular 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones never ran after his defeat in the Belmont Stakes. And – Big Red alert – Secretariat was syndicated for $6.08 million in February of 1973, before he ran a race as a three-year-old. He did not race as a four-year-old, although he did race 21 times at two and three, whereas Flightline might race only six times (as did Justify).

*There are occasional exceptions that prove this rule: Gun Runner was a popular four-year-old who won the BC Classic, but he also did not win a Grade I race until November of his three-year-old season; there was less at risk, and significant potential upside. And of course, the financials are entirely different for fillies and mares, who can produce only one baby per year, not hundreds. (Says Ingordo, who also picked out legendary mare Zenyatta, and whose mother, Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, is married to Z’s trainer, John Shirreffs: “My mother likes to say, `If Zenyatt-A had been Zenyatt-O, things would have been very different.’”)

There is a historical theme in play: At one time, horse ownership was largely the province of families and individuals of vast, family wealth – with names like Whitney, Phipps, and Galbreath. Their horse operations were self-contained hobbies and often their best horses ran at four, five and six years old. Owner-breeder Allen Paulson, who fits this profile, kept Cigar in training through his six-year-old season, in 1986. They were considered “sportsmen.”

That paradigm has for the most part passed into racing history, replaced by a far more aggressively transactional ecosystem. (One other factor: “Shuttling” stallions between the Northern and Southern hemisphere breeding seasons). Sid Fernando, a longtime bloodstock consultant, says, “The traditional owners have been replaced to a significant degree by a new generation of owners who made money in other fields, and who like speculation. That speculation has become its own model. And the speculation, searching for a stallion, now starts at the yearling level.”

Walden says, “It’s true. The end user (the breeding farm) is now involved at the yearling sales level. That is relatively new.”

The entire process is accelerated, with little active regard for fans who desire, most of all, to see great horses run. “A lot of modern syndicates only care about winning one big race and then getting that horse to breeding shed,” says Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sackatoga Stables, a modest operation that nevertheless owned 2003 Derby/Preakness winner Funny Cide (a gelding with no stallion value) and 2020 Florida Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Tiz the Law. “Those syndicates have absolutely no qualms about pulling the plug on a racing career.”

Knowlton signed a stallion deal with Coolmore during Tiz the Law’s three-year-old season, but insisted that a clause be included that allowed Sackatoga to race Tiz the Law as a four-year-old. “They didn’t like it, but they did it,” says Knowlton. Tiz the Law was injured in the winter and retired, and thus did not ultimately race at four.

There’s broad agreement that the Justify deal threw the stallion model into a sort of hyperdrive. The ownership group of Winstar, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners (principally, Sol Kumin), SF Bloodstock (an arm of George Soros’s Soros Fund), and Starlight Racing (principally, Jack Wolf), not all of whom were involved at the start, bought Justify for $500,000 as a yearling and sold him to stud for that $75 million. Flightline was purchased for $1 million as a yearling. At those prices, it would have been interesting how the Vanberbilts might have proceeded. “I deal with sporting owners,” says Ingordo. “But you have to be a really sporting owner to keep horses like these on the racetrack.”

Mike Repole, the billionaire entrepreneur (most notably Vitaminwater) who operates Repole Stables and won the 2019 BC Classic with four-year-old Vino Rosso and was part owner of Mo Donegal, sees a larger issue. “Every sport is evolving,” says Repole. “Racing is not evolving. The Kentucky Derby, the biggest race in America, the race that every entrant dreams of winning, has a $3 million purse. It should probably be $20 million. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is $6 million; it should probably be $25 million. Then you would see more horses stay in training.” It’s common for everyday fans to ask why wealthy owners, like Repole, need the more millions offered by sending young horses to the breeding shed. “OK,” he says. “Mike Repole doesn’t need more money, except Mike Reople, puts that money back into racing.”

Related: How to watch the 2022 Breeders’ Cup

Furthermore: “There’s no governing body, no commissioner, just everybody looking out for their own self-interest,” says Repole. “It’s a poorly run sport. It’s The Flintstones, not The Jetsons. I’d like to buy the sport, and fix it, but nobody owns it.”

Against this entire backdrop, Flightline will race Saturday, and perhaps not again. Ingordo, who is part of the team that will make – or has already made – that decision, asks that it not be assumed that Team Flightline are inured to the emotions of the moment. “I can tell you that I would love to see Flightline keep racing,” says Ingordo. “So would (trainer/part owner) John Sadler, so would the Hronises, so would West Point (a partnership). We’re all people who love horses and love racing. When you have a horse like this, there are so many decisions along the way, the daily grind. There is a such a small work-to-reward ratio… all the hours of labor and worry, for what, 10 minutes of exuberance, total?” (A little less, actually, if he is retired after Saturday).

“This is not an easy decision,” says Ingordo, “And it is not taken lightly.” In fact, turning conventional outrage on its side, there’s an argument that Flightline’s owners deserve some praise for running him in the Breeders’ Cup, when his value is already massive. Like Walden said: Small inherent risk….

In this way, the Classic becomes one lap on Kentucky dirt, freighted with emotion: Both a gutting farewell from racing fans who rarely experience such greatness and saw so little of his; and an entire industry wishing him home safely

“If I owned this horse,” says Fernando, the bloodstock expert. “I would be on pins and needles.”

As are we all. If not for the same reasons.