The words, unanimous, effusive and unfiltered, spill from the mouths of the insiders and the old-timers. From the people who pay attention to horse racing for the entirety of the season, and not just the three races run between the first Saturday in May and early June. From the folks who line the rails and watch horses breeze in the early hours of the morning, when no one else is around. From the clockers with stopwatches, and the veterans with eyeballs who do not track in hyperbole, or wishful thinking or hype.
They are not merely talking about Flightline; they are putting his name in sentences that include Secretariat and Man o’ War and Citation, making comparisons that are otherwise verboten on the backsides of American racetracks. There are caveats, of course: mostly that generational comparisons are always tricky as a sport evolves, that the way horses ran then isn’t the same as the way they run now. But they aren’t backing down too far, or tempering their words. Mostly because they all agree: Flightline, who will load into the starting gate as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday, needs to be in the conversation for the fastest racehorse of all time. And yes, that’s a list that includes Secretariat.
And odds are, if you’re just a casual sports fan, you’ve never heard of him.
On an otherwise ordinary day at a farm in Ocala, Fla., Flightline’s path took a game-changing detour. Spooked just before leaving for a morning exercise, he reared up and caught a ragged edge on a barn door, slicing his butt with a deep 6-inch gash. “I saw pictures a year later,’’ says his trainer, John Sadler. “It was pretty gruesome.’’ The injury — which left a still visible scar — delayed his start as a racehorse. Flightline didn’t start training until December of his 2-year-old year, and competed in his first race just 10 days before the 2021 Kentucky Derby, knocking him out of Triple Crown contention.
The decline of horse racing has been well-chronicled, the sport sliding out of the national consciousness thanks to a combination of issues — the rise of casinos to satiate the country’s gambling thirst and the sport’s spotty record with doping alienating fans rank at the top. Whatever the main culprit, it is more spectacle than sport these days. The general public dons its hats and seersucker and perks up for the Kentucky Derby, and then all but disappears, continuing to pay attention through the Preakness and Belmont Stakes only if the Derby winner continues to race and win. When Derby long shot winner Rich Strike this year pulled out of the Preakness, NBC’s viewership plummeted to its lowest audience since 2000, save the 2020 race run in October.
By pure racing standards, skipping the Triple Crown might have helped Flightline. The schedule is antithetical to the rest of the horse racing calendar, the three races crammed in a five-week period. No one races their horses like that anymore, and the wear and tear can send some — especially the successful ones — to an early retirement.
But it also put him on the shelf as a would-be, could-be household name. (Ironically, he also could have saved the sport’s lone real household name. The 2021 Derby resulted in a lengthy suspension for trainer Bob Baffert, after his Derby winner, Medina Spirit, failed a post-race drug test. Had Flightline raced, who knows?) Had Flightline done as a 3-year-old what he is doing now, as a 4-year-old, there’s no way people wouldn’t be talking about him.
Because what he is doing now is extraordinary. He is not merely undefeated, he is near untouchable. He has won his five races by a combined 62 ¾ lengths and all but one has been by 11 lengths or more. Whatever skeptics remained turned into converts in his most recent race, the Pacific Classic. Running in a race that included two turns for the first time and a race that stretched for more than a mile for the first time, Flightline won by 19 ¼ lengths, leaving the Dubai World Cup winner among others in his dust. “It’s eerie when you think about it — he’s never had to even think about a competitor, because he’s never had one,’’ says Terry Finley, the CEO and president of West Point Thoroughbreds, which purchased Flightline at the 2019 Saratoga sale. “I love that idea. He’s never even had to think about another horse.’’
A great horse will change your life. The truly special ones define it.
— Del Mar Racetrack (@DelMarRacing) October 20, 2022
While studying at Harvard in the 1960s, a man by the name of Andy Beyer came up with a measurable for horses, and in 1992, the Daily Racing Form started publishing those figures. Only one horse has recorded a better Beyer speed figure than Flightline’s 126 in the Pacific Classic, and none have matched his five-race string of excellence — 105, 114, 118, 112, and 126. “It’s like comparing Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle; it’s not easy to compare generations, but he is a great, great horse,’’ Sadler says. “One of those rare horses that only comes along every 20 years.” For those who at least want some recent comparisons, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won the Breeders’ Cup Classic by 6 1/2 lengths in 2015; his Beyer figure was 120. It was, by far, the best of his career.
Finley grew up in suburban Philadelphia, the son of a schoolteacher with an affinity for horses. He worked on a farm in Colts Neck, N.J., and frequented the Liberty Bell Racetrack in northeast Philly. An engineer by trade and a West Point graduate who retired as a captain, he started West Point Thoroughbreds in 1991, setting it up as a partnership organization with designs on opening up horse ownership to more people. In 2017, he bought into Always Dreaming, who not only rewarded him with a win at the Kentucky Derby, but reaffirmed to Finley that to succeed in the horse business, he had to change his methods.
The sport is about educated luck, really, and won not so much at the finish line as the start. The best yearlings go to the most deep-pocketed buyers, and while it doesn’t always add up (Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum has invested millions in 12 Derby horses and has zero roses to show for it), it’s the smartest way to start. Finley liked the horses he’d gotten in with prior, but compared them to fifth-round draft picks, horses with good attitudes and pluck, but “fifth-rounders for a reason. Nobody can buy all the good prospects,’’ Finley continues. “Nobody can out money the business. It’s just impossible. Our thesis is to try and get attached to as many well-pedigreed horses as we can and then put them in the hands of the people who are consummate pros.’’
Flightline certainly had the pedigree, not to mention the blessing of one of the best horse spotters in the business. David Ingordo is a bloodstock agent, a horse scout for lack of a better word. He’s charged with identifying young talent, something he’s awfully good at. In 2005, he convinced his owners to purchase Zenyatta for $60,000. She won 19 of her 20 starts and earned more than $7 million. Ingordo, who joined the West Point group in 2017, originally went to see another horse, but Flightline turned his head. Flightline is hardly some by-the-bootstraps horse. This is not the blue-light special Smarty Jones, or even Rich Strike, an also-eligible late add to the Derby field who went out and won the thing. Flightline is a son of Tapit, the best sire in North America, and sold for $1 million.
So he is hardly from nowhere. It’s more that his wins have been captured in the shadows — his three Grade 1 wins coming at the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita, the Met Mile at Belmont Park and the Pacific Classic in Del Mar. “It’s not like he was purposely withheld from the Triple Crown,” Sadler says. “It just wasn’t in the cards for him. But his race in the Pacific Classic is right there with as great as any horse has ever run on any given day. Pick the best race on the best day, and his Classic matches or exceeds that.’’
The 66-year-old Sadler has been training horses since 1978, after retiring his original dream to make the Olympic show jumping team. He’s had his share of success, including more than 120 graded stakes wins, but nothing could quite prepare him for this. He loves to study coaches, and sees himself as an Andy Reid “but not quite as droll,’’ a man happy to do his job and leave the fanfare to everyone else. Baffert, in his requisite sunglasses staring into thousands of cameras, he is not.
This week, he’s likened himself to the team’s designated driver, in charge of keeping order in the barn while the rest of the world goes mad. Sadler spoke to The Athletic last Thursday, just a day after Flightline arrived at Keeneland. It was quiet around the barn then. Three days later, the grandstand was stuffed with onlookers, watching the horse in his 7:30 a.m. five-furlong workout. “I’m the no-fun guy. Who wants to be that guy, right? But I accept it,’’ he says. “Everyone wants to be out there at 1 or 2 in the morning popping Champagne bottles,’’ he says. “I hope eventually I have that chance, but not right now.’’
The Champagne could pop come Saturday. The Breeders’ Cup might lack the public appeal of the Derby, but it always is a race with the very best horses. Unlike the Derby, limited to just 3-year-olds, it’s an all-comer event. Flightline will not only go against Rich Strike, but Epicenter, the best 3-year-old running, and the very fast 4-year-old Life is Good.
Weird things happen in horse racing, and sure things often aren’t terribly sure. If there is a knock on Flightline, it is that he has been extraordinarily lightly run — which also adds to his anonymity. He’s run five races in the last 16 months, five races in his entire career. That’s largely due to circumstance. Along with the barn door incident that kept him out of the Triple Crown, a foot injury sidelined him this spring, and Sadler has, therefore, been understandably cautious.
People naturally wonder, then, what will happen to a horse who’s never seen a competitor when he’s challenged? “Who says he’s going to be challenged?” Sadler quips with a laugh. “He has stepped up to the challenge every single time he’s been asked. It’s a unique campaign, and it’s not going to be the norm, but it’s certainly worked for him.’’
It might help if he kept on keeping on. No one has said what Flightline will do after next Saturday. Man o’ War, Citation, Native Dancer all ran in their 4-year-old seasons and beyond. Even Secretariat competed in six more races after the Belmont Stakes. There’s been casual conversation about running Flightline in 2023, as a 5-year-old, but the breeding rights beckon. With Tapit now 21, Flightline could become the most valuable stallion in the world. Some estimate his worth, with a dominant Breeders’ Cup win, could near $100 million. That’s hard to risk. (In an effort to gin up some interest, West Point Thoroughbreds is taking to the Metaverse post race, offering up an auction for a chance to buy into 2.5 percent of Flightline.)
Even if he wins the Breeders’ Cup, Flightline isn’t likely to appear on the cover of Time magazine, as Secretariat did in 1973, or capture the nation, as Seabiscuit did in his match race against War Admiral. Timing is everything, and recognition will be hard to come by in a weekend sporting calendar clogged with a No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Georgia college football game, the regular NFL slate and the World Series.
That, however, shouldn’t diminish what Flightline has done, or what Flightline might just be. “I know it’s tough for our industry outside the Triple Crown, and really the Derby,’’ Finley says. “But trust me, this is a great horse. A once-in-a-lifetime horse.”
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Keith Birmingham, Andy Lyons / Getty Images)