flightline in historical perspective

By Dick Jerardi

“Champions,’’ a Daily Racing Form publication, subtitled “The Lives, Times and Past Performances of America’s Greatest Thoroughbreds,’’ is a wonderful resource that I have used countless times through the years. It chronicles America’s greatest horses from the 1890s to the 2000s.

When Flightline won the Pacific Classic by 19 1/4 lengths, it was time to take another look through “Champions.’’ Comparisons with some of the legends like Man o’ War, Citation, Native Dancer Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid are really impossible. It was such a different sport from the 1920s into the early 1980s.

But this is certain: no horse at the top level of the sport has ever started a career with five performances like Flightline’s. Five wins by a combined 62 3/4 lengths, the last three Grade I stakes.

When Justify was gearing up for the 2018 Kentucky Derby, I did a study for DRF, looking back over 25 years to see how many horses had begun careers with at least three consecutive triple digit Beyer figures. The answer was 18, including Justify and Lost in the Fog (10 straight). A few of the horses were well known, others obscure.

None of those 18 had a five race series of Beyers that was anything close to Fightline’s 105, 114, 118, 112 and 126. That 126 in the Pacific Classic is tied for the second highest Beyer in the 30 years they have been published in DRF. Only Ghostzapper’s 128 Beyer in the 2004 Iselin is higher.

Obviously, there were no Beyer figures in the 20s, 40s and 50s. And none were published until the 90s. So there is no way to know how Flightline’s numbers would compare to the legends cited above.

Flightline did not begin his career until April 24, 2021 as his fellow 3-year-olds were gearing up for the Kentucky Derby. Then, the colt did not run again until Sept. 5. He was off again until the Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26. Then, it was the Met Mile on June 11 and the Pacific Classic on Sept. 3.

The five races in little more than 16 months is strange even when compared to today’s cautious handling of America’s best horses. Flightline has had minor injuries which were part of the issue. But five races does not constitute any kind of campaign.

Still, Flightline did beat the Dubai World Cup winner by 19 lengths in the Pacific Classic. The Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner was nowhere in the Malibu.

It is Flightline’s margins that are so astounding. Very few American races are decided by 10 lengths or more. All but one of Flightline’s have been decided by 11 lengths or more.

Flightline will race next in the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. As a son of superstar stallion Tapit, Flightline’s worth as a stallion is almost incalculable. $80 million? $100 million? More?

The colt’s ownership group is talking about racing him in 2023 as a 5-year-old. Let’s hope it happens and Flightline runs in races like the Pegasus World Cup, the Saudi Cup, the Dubai World Cup, the BC Classic again. But that breeding money is going to be very difficult to ignore. If Flightline wins the 2022 Classic like he has won all his other races and runs in those big races next year and keeps winning by huge margins, historical comparisons can, at least, be attempted.

In this era, what Flightline has done so far is unprecedented because of how fast he runs and the margins of victory.

“Champions’’ reveals what some of the legends did.

Man o’ War ran 10 times as a 2-year-old and 11 times as a 3-year-old. He won 20 and was second once after a terrible start.

Citation ran nine times as a 2-year-old with eight wins and a second. Then, he ran 20 times as a 3-year-old, with 19 wins, a second and a Triple Crown.

Native Dancer won all nine of his races as a 2-year-old. As a 3-year-old, the colt ran 10 times with nine wins and a second (an excruciating loss in the Kentucky Derby). He was 3-for-3 as a 4-year-old.

Secretariat set track records in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Next year will mark a half century since the greatest Triple Crown of all. Each of the stakes records still stands. So do the track records at Churchill Downs and Belmont which remains a world record.

Seattle Slew was a perfect 9-for-9 when he won his Triple Crown.

Spectacular Bid was 24-for-24 at distances from 7 furlongs to a mile and a quarter.

None of that would ever happen today. The stallion money is just too enticing and top horses just don’t race that much.

Whatever happens in the Classic or in 2023 with Flightline, let’s just enjoy what we have now _ one of the fastest horses in the history of American racing. 

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