December 7, 2022

Flightline retires in blaze of Breeders’ Cup glory

Flightline, with Flavien Prat aboard, after the Breeders' Cup Classic (Photo by Horsephotos.com)

Just as Flightline’s conquest of the $5.34 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) had an air of virtual inevitability about it, so did the announcement of his retirement to stud in the aftermath. The only question was the swiftness of the press release, delivered by Lane’s End Farm on Sunday morning.

A perfect 6-for-6 with career earnings of $4,514,800, Flightline flaunted his superiority from sprints to the American classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. But his pedigree, physique, and sales history all add to his extraordinary stallion appeal. The blueblood son of Tapit and the Grade 1-performing Indian Charlie mare Feathered, a descendant of champion Lady Pitt’s tribe long cultivated by the Phipps family, was himself sold for $1 million as a Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling.

Bred by Jane Lyon’s Summer Wind Equine, which stayed in for a share, Flightline raced for a partnership including Hronis Racing, Siena Farm, West Point Thoroughbreds, and the Lane’s End-linked Woodford Racing. Trainer John Sadler and his team, led by top assistant-cum-exercise rider Juan Leyva, taught the once-headstrong colt to harness his energy, managed him artfully through setbacks, and produced him ready to fire his best every time he entered the gate.

From a racing fan’s perspective, of course, those six starts left us wanting more, rapt with the spectacle of how easy Flightline made it all look. If you weren’t watching the clock, you’d think he was just coasting. Such were his silky-smooth mechanics, and seemingly effortless cruising speed, that he fooled the eye – a trompe l’oeil in equine form.

Flightline learned his early lessons with at Mayberry Farm in Ocala, Florida, where a mishap with a stall door – banging his hindquarters on the latch and suffering a deep gash– delayed his joining Sadler at the racetrack. That would be the leitmotif of his racing life, various setbacks punctuating his career and calling for patience on the part of his connections.

Thankfully, for Flightline, his fans, and racing history, Sadler and the ownership consortium gave him all the time he needed. Hence he didn’t race until well into the spring of his three-year-old season.

Unveiled on April 24, 2021, at Santa Anita, Flightline was no secret in a six-furlong maiden. The 9-10 favorite ran his rivals off their feet in a 13 1/4-length rout while clocking 1:08.75, good for a 105 Brisnet Speed rating. He wasn’t seen again until Del Mar that summer, when demolishing an entry-level allowance by 12 3/4 lengths at odds of 1-5. His 1:08.05 time for six furlongs garnered a gaudy 117 Speed rating.

His stakes debut came in the Malibu (G1) back at Santa Anita. Although Flightline was the one technically taking the class hike, in reality it was his rivals who’d never seen anything like him. The 2-5 favorite didn’t break fast, but bulled his way to the lead, and the race was over. The margin of victory was 11 1/2 lengths, and he notched a 114 Speed rating for covering seven furlongs in 1:21.37.

The racing world eagerly awaited Flightline’s stretching out in 2022. In his four-year-old bow in the June 11 Metropolitan H. (G1) around Belmont Park’s one-turn mile, the 0.45-1 favorite created suspense by getting away a beat slow and having to steady off the heels of Speaker’s Corner. Regular rider Flavien Prat knew what he had beneath him, however, and soon got him into good chasing rhythm. On the far turn, Flightline passed Speaker’s Corner with alacrity, making that streaking Carter H. (G1) winner look like an overmatched workmate. The stretch run was effectively a victory lap as he drew off by six lengths in 1:33.59, racking up a 108 Speed figure.

Sadler’s long-crafted plan was to step up to 1 1/4 miles in the Sept. 3 Pacific Classic (G1), and the increased distance only magnified Flightline’s advantage over his opponents. In a performance that evoked comparisons with the legendary Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont (G1), the 3-10 favorite imposed his will on the backstretch, opened up by double digits, and strolled home 19 1/4 lengths in front. His time of 1:59.28 was just off Candy Ride’s track record of 1:59.11 from the 2003 Pacific Classic. A modicum of additional effort would have eclipsed it, but he was content with a 117 Speed rating. A pole away in second was Country Grammer, just the reigning Dubai World Cup (G1) winner.

Thus Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic appeared a formality on paper, even allowing for the excellent field including the brilliant $4.3 million-earner Life Is Good, leading sophomore Epicenter (who would be pulled up with a condylar fracture requiring surgery), up-and-coming Taiba, Kentucky Derby (G1) upsetter Rich Strike, and classy older males Hot Rod Charlie, Olympiad, and Happy Saver.

Flightline never gave the slightest doubt, readily tracking Life Is Good’s torrid pace before giving him the Speaker’s Corner treatment. To the cheers of the Keeneland crowd and a worldwide audience, he put an 8 1/4-length exclamation point on his career in 2:00.05. As at Del Mar, he might have broken the track record if asked, but a 113 Speed rating was more than enough to ride off into the sunset as the ever-conquering hero.

Now Flightline will try to transmit something of his raw ability and power to his progeny. While it would be too much to imagine that he could sire an otherworldly performer like himself, his genetic heritage might turn out to be a gold mine.

Flightline’s stud fee is to be determined. But a clue to his valuation is forthcoming on Monday, when a 2.5% interest in the four-year-old will be offered at Keeneland November.

The lock for 2022 Horse of the Year and champion older dirt male, Flightline established himself as an historic talent. The magnitude of his accomplishments, albeit in a mere six starts, should stand the test of time.