View From The Eighth Pole: Putting Flightline On The Highest Pedestal - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

View From The Eighth Pole: Putting Flightline On The Highest Pedestal

Flightline winning the Pacific Classic under Flavien Prat

Childhood heroes seem to linger.

It's been more than 60 years since I first saw Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants visit Chicago's Wrigley Field and run circles around the hapless Cubs. I also tuned in to the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week whenever the Giants were on television so I could watch Mays perform his magic.

I was convinced then, and remain so today, that Willie Mays was the most complete baseball player of my lifetime. He could hit, run, hit with power, field his position, and throw. He did them all exceptionally well.

Jim Brown was a contemporary of Mays whose career as a National Football League running back lasted just nine years, from 1957-'65. Prior to that he was All-America on both the football and lacrosse teams at Syracuse University. When he walked away from football at the top of his game at 29 years old, he held numerous records, but statistics seldom tell the whole story.

It's the lasting image of Brown on grainy black-and-white video, slashing through the defensive line, faking out or bowling over opponents with a combination of speed and power that set an impossibly high bar for greatness in football. That's why so many, including me, still believe Brown to be the sport's greatest running back of all time.

Professional sports have changed over the last 50 years. Strength coaches, conditioning, and specialty players have helped pitchers throw harder and make tacklers stronger and faster. Would Mays and Brown thrive in today's world as they did then? I tend to think they would, but that may be due to my nostalgic leanings.

Racing is no different. Who among us hasn't visited Youtube for a chance to relive Secretariat's unforgettable 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes? That is the gold standard for our sport, at least for fans in my generation, and probably for those much younger as well. Discussions about the greatest racehorse of the last century usually begin and often end with the 1973 Triple Crown winner.

When asked who is the greatest horse I've ever seen, my answer has always been Spectacular Bid (since I never saw Secretariat race in-person). His tear through Southern California's handicap ranks in 1980 – winning six races from Jan. 5 through June 8 – was a demonstration of speed and stamina that comes around rarely. His perfect nine-for-nine year ended with a walkover in the Grade 1 Woodward that September, galloping on his own around Belmont Park under Bill Shoemaker, running the mile and a quarter in 2:02 2/5.

There have been other outstanding performers in the four decades since: John Henry, Sunday Silence, Holy Bull, Cigar, Ghostzapper, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah among them. None of them budged The Bid off the pedestal on which I had placed him.

Flightline has.

Saturday's TVG Pacific Classic only had six starters, but three of them had won U.S. Grade 1 races, two were G2 winners in the U.S. (Royal Ship, one of those two, was also a Group 1 winner in his native Brazil), and one was a G3 winner. Country Grammer, in addition to winning the G1 Gold Cup last year at Santa Anita, won the 2022 G1 Dubai World Cup after a narrow loss in the G1 Saudi Cup.

This was not a field of creampuffs.

Flightline made them look like Little Leaguers playing against Willie Mays or a Pop Warner football team trying to tackle Jim Brown. Flightline was simply in a different league.

The 4-year-old Tapit colt's move to the front midway down the backstretch, with no encouragement from jockey Flavien Prat, suggested we might be in for something special. As Flightline then rounded the far turn and began to spurt away toward Secretariatland, jaws dropped open and many of us sat in stunned silence. It was sheer perfection – the kind of performance that famously moved golf legend Jack Nicklaus to tears while watching Secretariat's Belmont tour de force alone at his home in Florida.

Bill Farish, whose Woodford Racing is co-owner of Flightline with Hronis Racing, Summer Wind Equine, West Point Thoroughbreds, and Siena Farm, was similarly overcome with emotion in a post-race interview, barely able to utter any words when asked about Flightline's performance. Horses can do that to people.

The eagerness Flightline showed as he bounded away from his rivals in the final quarter mile was something to behold. “This is why I've been put through all this training by John Sadler,” Flightline must have been thinking. “This is fun.”

Prat had peeked back to look at his vanquished foes just before the furlong pole and again with a sixteenth of a mile to run. He probably felt sorry for them, easing up on Flightline in the final 100 yards but still finishing a full 19 ¼ lengths ahead of runner-up Country Grammer in 1:59.28, just missing Candy Ride's stakes and track record of 1:59.11 in 2003. Incidentally, Country Grammer's estimated final time was faster than his clocking in the Dubai World Cup.

This wasn't a one-off performance. His previous winning margins were 13 ¼, 12 ¾, 11 ½, and six lengths, the latter in the G1 Metropolitan Mile Handicap when he had trouble in the opening furlong. According to Jay Privman in Daily Racing Form, Flightline's Beyer Speed Figure of 126 in the Pacific Classic was the highest for any horse since Ghostzapper was given a 128 in the G3 Phillip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park in 2004. Ghostzapper won that day by 10 ¾ lengths on a sloppy racetrack, the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.66. Runner-up was Presidentialaffair, a G3 winner and the only other graded stakes winner in the field of four.

Would it have been nice if Flightline had run prior to April of his 3-year-old year and raced more often than he has, with three starts in 2021 and just two this year? Of course, it would. Spectacular Bid raced 30 times, with 26 wins, over three seasons from ages two to four, something we will never see a champion Thoroughbred do again.

Whatever happens in his next anticipated start, the G1 Breeders' Cup at Keeneland on Nov. 5, Flightline has cemented his legacy in my mind as the greatest horse I've ever seen.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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