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Flightline: A Secretariat-like performance in an unseen career

John Sadler's favorite shows devastating speed, winning the Met Mile by multiple lengths and earning a sport in the Breeder's Cup Dirt Mile.

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.