Tinky: Flightline An All-Time Great? Not So Fast, Ray - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Tinky: Flightline An All-Time Great? Not So Fast, Ray

Flightline and jockey Flavien Prat after the Met Mile at Belmont

When I read Ray's recent View From the Eighth Pole post, in which he revealed (admitted?) that Flightline had displaced Spectacular Bid as the greatest horse that he has seen race live over the past ~40 years, I was surprised. When Jay Hovdey, one of Ray's guests on the most recent Friday Show, also placed Flightline on an exceptionally high pedestal, and the pair attempted to explain their logic, I was motivated to put pen to paper. Well, fingers to keyboard, to be more precise, but like those two grizzled veterans, I too can recall what it was like to write in longhand.

No one would dispute that Flightline is an extraordinarily talented racehorse. Speed figures never tell the whole story, of course, but any horse capable of running that fast over 10 furlongs is minimally in rarefied company, and his previous four races were very impressive, as well. Having said that though, I will argue that it is clearly premature at this stage to place him into the category of all-time greats.

In the aforementioned Friday Show, Ray and his guests touched on the criteria traditionally used to judge greatness in a racehorse. They also noted that some of them, such as weight carrying and durability, have, in a sense, become outdated. This is superficially true, but viewing the question through that lens also arguably has the effect of making it much easier to overrate contemporary runners, as the bar has, by definition, been lowered.

Like all serious students of the game, I learned to distinguish the quality of racehorses over decades of experience. Having been attracted to European racing at a fairly early stage, thanks largely to the Arlington Million (Like Ray, I cut my teeth in Chicago tracks), I found it extremely valuable to learn to handicap with a strong emphasis on class, form and weight, as it helped to deepen my understanding of the more speed-centric American game. I was also lucky enough to witness some remarkable performances by outstanding Champions across the pond.

Before delving into the criteria that are directly relevant to Flightline's form to date, I would argue that weight carrying and durability actually should be taken into account while attempting to place him into a historical context. Ray referenced Willie Mays to help contexualize his position, so I'll use a baseball analogy as well. In 1968, Bob Gibson recorded a 1.12 ERA, pitched five consecutive shutouts in June, and was 12-0 in June/July, all complete games, giving up a total of six runs. Should those incredible feats be ignored when comparing him to contemporary pitchers because they are literally inconceivable in the context of today's game? Of course not!

Like many seasoned observers, I have long held Spectacular Bid in exceptionally high regard. But in sharp contrast to Ray's take, I don't believe that Flightline's accomplishments to date put him close to, let alone above that one on a list of all-time greats.

Spectacular Bid was undefeated in 22 races from seven to ten furlongs, four times carrying 130 lbs. or more, and easily beating horses the quality of Flying Paster, Relaunch, General Assembly, and Glorious Song. He tied the 5.5 furlong track record at Pimlico, then set a new record at Laurel over 8.5 furlong as a 2-year old (try to find another 2-year-old which set a track record around two turns at a major track!). At three, he set new records at Delaware and The Meadowlands. At four, he set a new 7 furlong record at Santa Anita in the Malibu Stakes (1:20), which stood for 27 years before an artificial surface was installed. Two races later he set a world record for 10f. on the dirt at Santa Anita (157.4), a record that still stands today! He later set the 9f. record at Holywood Park (145.8) while carrying 130 lbs, and won the Washington Park Hcp. at Arlington by 10 lengths, again carrying 130 lbs., and breaking the 9 furlong record previously held by Damascus. In his penultimate start, he comfortably accounted for the outstanding mare Glorious Song in the Haskell, while spotting her 15 lbs.

Given the above, I am hard-pressed to understand how anyone might, on reasonably close inspection, arrive at the conclusion that Flightline has proven nearly enough to be considered as good, let alone better than Spectacular Bid. We're talking about a horse that has only raced five times, and which has never faced a single top-class horse. I don't want to go far off on the related tangent, but for context, top-class horses are distinctly superior to the high-class runners which typically win Grade I races.

Flightline beat thoroughly forgettable horses through his first three races. In the Met Mile, he beat Happy Saver and Speaker's Corner. The former has won a single Grade I race, a modest edition of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and has been beaten by four different horses in Grade I events. The latter also has a single Grade I win to his credit, and neither he nor the runner-up have won a race since being defeated by Flightline.

Ray has made a point of arguing that quality of the Pacific Classic field was at least fairly good, an argument that I find to be less than compelling. Royal Ship, the third-place finisher, has essentially been a Grade 2 caliber horse in the U.S. That's not to say that he couldn't possibly win a Grade I, but that he would likely need advantageous conditions to do so. Country Grammer, the runner-up, is by a clear margin the best horse that Flightline has faced to date, but how good is he? His first Grade I win came in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, at the narrow expense of Royal Ship. He subsequently won the Dubai World Cup last March, which is essentially his claim to fame. That victory, though, was largely due to the fact that the runner-up, Hot Rod Charlie, failed to stay the trip, and no, his second in the Belmont is not inconsistent with that observation. Hot Rod Charlie is also a 4-year-old, and his only Grade I win to date came in a weak edition of the Pennsylvania Derby. Country Grammer has never run very fast, either, within the historical context of Grade I performers. In other words, he is a rather ordinary “good” handicap horse, the type that can be found year in, and year out.

The manner in which Flightline demolished the field in the Pacific Classic was undeniably impressive, yet it is equally undeniable that he did so while enjoying every advantage, and that he has yet to face a single top-class horse.

The most subtle problem that I have with those who are tempted to prematurely anoint Flightline as an all-time great is that they tend to either miss or undervalue a criterion that I consider to be of great importance when it comes to judging greatness in a racehorse: an ability to overcome serious adversity. Jay Hovdey, to his credit, touched on it when recalling the conditions under which Spectacular Bid performed so sensationally while winning the Santa Anita Hcp. But interestingly, it did not seem to be important to him in his assessment of Flightline.

I would argue, and I know that I am not alone, that Seattle Slew's losing performance in the 1978 12 furlong Jockey Club Gold Cup was clearly superior to Flightline's Pacific Classic win. The latter enjoyed every tactical advantage while up against a field of deeply inferior horses, while Slew produced what may be the most impressive effort in the face of severe adversity seen over the past 50 years in American racing. In his penultimate start as a 4-year-old, he was facing another Triple Crown winner in Affirmed, as well as the top-class, ex-European horse Exceller. A “rabbit” named Life's Hope had also been entered in an attempt to soften Seattle Slew up, and allow Affirmed's stamina to rule the day. Before the race even began, Seattle Slew broke through the gate, and had to re-loaded. Then, Affirmed's saddle slipped, and Cauthen lost control early, so that one joined the fray up front and the three horses blazed into the first turn. Perhaps even more remarkably, Cordero, who was riding Slew, lost a stirrup, and bounced on the saddle briefly before regaining his footing, causing his mount to pull much harder than usual. The three flew through an opening half-mile fraction of :45 1/5. At that point the rabbit gave way, but Affirmed pressed Slew into a six furlong fraction of 1:09 2/5.

This was a 12 furlong race, so the pace would have been suicidal for any remotely ordinary horse. After Affirmed threw in the towel, Seattle Slew blazed on, and was seemingly in control around the mile mark, but Exceller, who had raced far back in the early stages, came flying around the final turn, and appeared almost certain to have an easy victory within his grasp. Yet despite the latter having the great benefit of a beautifully timed ride by Willie Shoemaker, Slew wasn't going to go down without a serious fight, and the two horses battled tooth and nail throughout the stretch. Exceller prevailed by a nose, but no one, and I mean no one who understands what had occurred would be confused about which was the better horse.

While admittedly extreme, this is an example of what I refer to when I speak of serious adversity, not something as mundane as a poor break, or some traffic trouble, and especially while facing inferior rivals, as was the case with Flightline in the Met Mile. And overcoming such adversity would take on added importance with a horse, like Flightline, that had raced so few times, and had never been tested by a top-class rival.

One note on speed, though it is certainly to his credit that Flightline ran so fast in the Pacific Classic. He recorded a 126 Beyer figure in the race (and an extremely fast Thoro-Graph figure). In 1997, a horse called Formal Gold ran three consecutive races with Beyer figures of 126, 124 and 125. In two of those he beat an absolutely outstanding horse in Skip Away by over five lengths. The latter recorded Beyer figures of >110 in 20 races, including a 122 and 125. Do readers imagine that Flightline's Pacific Classic was more impressive due to the margin of victory? Not in my book. In fact, quite the opposite, and I'm not aware of anyone who would consider Formal Gold to have been an all-time great horse.

So in summary, what Flightline has proven to date is that he is an exceptionally fast racehorse, and that he is versatile enough to have won over a variety of distances. He has been thoroughly and impressively dominant, yet over a small number of races, and at the expense of relatively modest opposition. He will undoubtedly be retired without having proven either durability, or impressive weight-carrying ability, but hopefully his impending performance in the Breeders' Cup will further illuminate the debate.

As a final note, while I do consider Zenyatta to have been a great horse, my oldest racing friend and I like to point out that at the time she wasn't even the best female horse in the world whose name began with the letter Z (it was Zarkava). Based on their performances to date, Flightline isn't currently the best horse in the world – that would be Baaeed (GB). This is not meant to say that he couldn't ultimately prove to be an all-time great – of course he could. But doing so would likely necessitate risk-taking by his owners, and sadly, it is very difficult to be optimistic about such management given his enormous stud value.

–Tinky

Tinky is the nom de plume of a student of the game who developed a passion for Thoroughbred racing in the mid-1970s, and has been an industry professional for ~four decades (and counting). He also has a long-standing history of commenting publicly on various racing-related sites around the internet, including The Paulick Report.
If you would like to submit an op/ed for consideration for The Paddock, please email it to info at paulickreport.com
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