Kirkpatrick & Co Presents In Their Care: Flightline, Exercise Rider Juan Leyva 'A Match Made In Heaven' - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Kirkpatrick & Co Presents In Their Care: Flightline, Exercise Rider Juan Leyva ‘A Match Made In Heaven’

Flightline and Juan Leyva at Del Mar

Flightline's immense natural ability is obvious. The 4-year-old son of Tapit will take a perfect 5 for 5 record into the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic, dominating his starts by a combined 62 ¾ lengths. In his first test around two turns, the Sept. 3 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, he dusted his rivals by 19 ¼ lengths.

Not so readily apparent is the work that occurs behind the scenes to teach Flightline to harness his blistering speed. That has been done by Juan Leyva, his exercise rider and the top assistant to trainer John Sadler.

Terry Finley, whose West Point Thoroughbreds purchased Flightline for $1 million as a yearling before taking on partners, describes the pairing of the superstar colt and the 38-year-old former jockey as “a match made in heaven.”

Finley said of Leyva: “I think he's got a quiet professionalism and a quiet confidence that he's imparted to Flightline. And I think we're seeing the manifestation of that, the work he's done day after day.”

Finley views the rider as something of a pitching coach.

“He has taught him to take a little off his fastball,” he said.

Even Flightline cannot be all out all the time. And that was his desire when he arrived at Sadler's Santa Anita barn late in 2020.

“He's matured quite a bit. In the beginning, when we would work him, he'd want to kind of run off and go as fast as he could,” Leyva said. “Now, he's really learned to relax and to listen to me. The biggest change in him, you can see it in his workouts. He's not pulling as hard in the beginning. He's settling and listening to what I want him to do.”

The horsemanship Leyva, a Mexico City native, was readily apparent when he rode from 2001 until 2017, producing 803 wins and almost $23 million in purses while competing primarily in South Florida.

“I was always invested in the horses I rode,” he said. “I felt if I gave good feedback, the horses could improve.”

It was only fitting that his greatest victory came aboard Musical Romance in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint for trainer Bill Kaplan, who mentored him almost daily.

Kaplan retired in 2016.

Leyva said of his influence: “He had a tremendous eye. What he was really good at was putting pedigree aside and, almost to a point, conformation. He really looked at the athlete and how horses moved.”

Leyva became so insightful that, as his riding career was winding down, Sadler asked if he would be interested in joining him as an assistant. David Fawkes, based at Gulfstream Park, did the same. When weight issues dampened Leyva's enthusiasm for being a jockey, he called Sadler to ask if his offer still stood. It did.

That, too, has been a match made in heaven.

“I thought I knew a lot about horses before working for him,” Leyva said. “But since joining his stable, it's just been an eye opener to how much I didn't know. It's just been invaluable for me.

“I've learned a lot of patience. You have to really pay attention to all the little details. You've got to have a plan for a horse.”

Leyva knew he was in for a great adventure the first time he sat on Flightline.

“I thought, 'Wow, what a different horse this is,'” he recalled. “I had never sat on a horse and felt the way he felt.”

Which leads to one obvious question. What sets Flightline apart?

Leyva answers readily, “His way of doing things. He does everything so effortlessly. He has such powerful strides. There also is this finesse about him. I told someone, 'It's like having a muscle car inside a luxury car package.' You've got all that power in there, but you don't feel you're going that fast.”

Leyva acknowledged feeling “tremendous pressure” as Flightline prepares to confront East Coast star Life Is Good and other talented foes in the Classic.

“Not only do I know this is the kind of animal we may never see again but also you want to do justice by the horse and help him reach his potential,” he said. “I think we've done a really good job of doing that.”

It is unclear whether Flightline, brilliant but prone to setbacks, will be retired if he delivers a highly-anticipated Classic triumph. Sadler, 66, has made it clear that Leyva will succeed him whenever he elects to call it a career as one of the West Coast's most prominent trainers.

“I don't expect him to walk away when Flightline retires,” Leyva said. “I think he's really established himself and he's getting the kind of horses every trainer wants to train.

“I don't see John retiring in the next two or three years. But if he does retire, I'll feel really proud that he feels that strongly about my abilities where he can say, 'Juan, I think you're ready to take over.' Hopefully, owners will feel the same way and they'll support me.”

Leyva can count Finley among the owners who believe in him.

“When the time comes, I think there will be a passing of the torch,” Finley said. “And the future is extremely bright for Juan Leyva.”

Flightline, with Juan Leyva aboard, drills from the gate at Del Mar
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