serious star power on belmont stakes day

By Dick Jerardi

The fastest (and most valuable) horse in the country evoked memories of the sport’s all-time greats on Belmont Stakes Day. The best 3-year-old in America ran 4 1/2 hours before the Belmont Stakes. The 2021 Cotillion winner at Parx ran the best race of her career. Finally, on what will be the best racing card of 2022 outside of Breeders’ Cup Saturday, order was restored to a bizarre Triple Crown season when Mr. Belmont Stakes himself Todd Pletcher finished 1-2 in the mile and a half classic.

It is very rare for a star performer in any sport to exceed the hype, Tiger Woods did it. LeBron James did it. Flightline is doing it.

The son of super sire Tapit was purchased for $1 million at the 2019 Saratoga yearling sale by Terry Finley’s West Point Thoroughbreds. Several partners joined in. The colt was eventually sent to trainer John Sadler in Southern California.

Word was out on Flightline before he made his debut in April 2021. He won big, but then he didn’t race for more than 4 months when he won big again.Then, it was almost 4 months before the next race. He won big again – three races all won by double-digit lengths, Beyer figures of 105, 114, 118, really unprecedented.

Then, the colt was away from the races for 5 1/2 months before he appeared in the starting gate for the Met Mile, his first race out of California, his first race against a field with three Grade I winners.

So what happens? Flightline misses the break, has to steady twice when trying to come up the rail, works his way outside top class Speaker’s Corner (five consecutive triple digit Beyer figures) on the turn, proceeds to leave that horse in just a few strides and runs away from Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Happy Saver in the stretch while Speaker’s Corner fades badly and Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Aloha West is never a factor.

Flightline ran the mile in 1:33.59, won by 6 lengths, got a 112 Beyer and, if you kept watching past the finish line, you saw a horse that was looking for more. If his minor issues that kept him from the races are behind him and this colt has a regular schedule from now to the Breeders’ Cup, there is simply no telling what we might see.

Jack Christopher is, by far, the fastest 3-year-old in America and proved it when dominating the Woody Stephens, running the 7 furlongs in 1:21.18, winning by 10 lengths and getting a 107 Beyer. Unbeaten and untested in four starts, Jack Christopher goes next in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Many races to run, but today I would rank Jack Christopher as the most likely 3-year-old champion when all those races are run.

There was eight Grade I stakes at Belmont Park. Trainer Chad Brown won three of them, two on grass and the Woody Stephens. He has Preakness winner Early Voting, Blue Grass Stakes winner Zandon and Jack Christopher so for the first time ever, he is loaded in horse racing’s glamor division. Expect to see at least one of that group in the Sept. 24 Pennsylvania Derby.

Last year’s Cotillion winner Clairiere, who may be the best-bred horse in America, was relentless in the Ogden Phipps, out finishing the 2021 3-year-old champion Malathaat in a wonderful stretch duel that was certainly set up by a wild speed duel between Letruska and Search Results, the Ortiz brothers running each other out of any chance of winning.

Clairiere is a daughter of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin out of $2 million earner Cavorting (winner of the 2016 Phipps). She never ran a poor race last year, but kept coming up short until her breakthrough win in the Cotillion. She will be a major player in the older female division the rest of the year after getting a career best 106 Beyer in the Phipps.

Reflecting the strange 2022 Triple Crown, this was the first time since 1954 that the Kentucky Derby winner did not run in the Preakness and the Preakness winner did not run in the Belmont Stakes. But the Derby winner did run in the Belmont (well Rich Strike was in the race, but he didn’t do much running, sort of like all those other races except the Derby).

Most importantly, Pletcher had two horses in the Belmont, the very consistent colt Mo Donegal and the very consistent filly Nest. In the last 15 years, Pletcher has perfected the Belmont winning formula: run in the Derby or Kentucky Oaks, take the horses back to his Belmont Park home base, and await the Belmont Stakes. In those 15 years, Pletcher now has four wins and six seconds from 29 starters after Mo Donegal (98 Beyer) and Nest ran 1-2, with Rich Strike a no-factor sixth, nearly 14 lengths behind Mo Donegal, a horse he had beaten by almost 4 lengths in the Derby. The Ortiz brothers ran 1-2 in the Belmont, with Irad winning on Mo Donegal, and Jose second on Nest.

Turned out the much-maligned Wood Memorial was the key Triple Crown prep this year, with the winner (Mo Donegal) and runner-up (Early Voting) winning the Belmont and Preakness. Didn’t see that coming off recent history and still have no clue where Rich Strike came from, but maybe a TC without Bob Baffert was always going to be strange.  Well, Baffert is due back off his suspension in 3 weeks and we have a great summer and fall racing season to look forward to with Flightline, Jack Christopher, Clairiere, Jackie’s Warrior, Life is Good and Golden Pal among so many stars on the track. Can’t wait.

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