Flightline evokes memories of all-time greats in Pacific Classic
“Take a good look at this cause you’re not going to see this too often – maybe never again!”
Track announcer Trevor Denman verbalized what racing fans were instinctively feeling as Flightline aired in Saturday’s Pacific Classic (G1). It wasn’t just the bare facts of his gaudy margin of victory, in a fast time that would have obliterated the track record if he’d been ridden out.
Rather, Flightline’s manner gave a worldwide audience that spine-tingling sensation of watching a performance of historic proportions unfold in real-time. Rare indeed is the horse who can decide to put a major 1 1/4-mile race away on the backstretch, draw off from proper rivals, and look nonchalant about it all. Expanding his margin from one length to 10 during the fourth quarter, Flightline almost doubled his advantage to 19 1/4 lengths at the wire, despite Flavien Prat’s wrapping up on him. You could be forgiven for forgetting, in that instant, that he’d never previously raced beyond a mile.
In the modern era, the benchmark of greatness over a classic distance on dirt is Secretariat. Thus the 1973 Triple Crown legend provided the natural reference point as observers came to grips with Flightline’s display.
Although Secretariat set track records in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby (G1) and 1 3/16-mile Preakness (G1), his rout of the Belmont (G1) offered the visual parallel. After putting away familiar foe Sham through a pace unsustainable for mere mortals, Secretariat simply opened up, and the race was over long before the far turn. The stretch drive turned into a triumphal procession as the new “Big Red,” who took over that nickname from the all-time great Man o’ War, romped by 31 lengths in an incredible time of 2:24 for 1 1/2 miles on dirt.
That was the same vibe Flightline exuded when he ran up the score a long way from home, and kept going. Nor was this a substandard field that he exposed. Runner-up Country Grammer had won the Dubai World Cup (G1), beating Life Is Good among others, to set the standard on 1 1/4-mile form. If Flightline weren’t in the Pacific Classic, Country Grammer would have been hailed as a seven-length winner over Royal Ship, with Santa Anita H. (G1) victor Express Train in fourth.
Flightline’s Pacific Classic ranks him among the exceptional performers in American racing history. Great Britain’s hallowed Timeform goes further, giving him a figure that places him on the shortlist of their all-time greats (who raced on turf).
I’d prefer to stick to dirt comparisons, which are difficult enough across time. Critics will look askance at elevating a lightly-raced horse with only five career starts, and it’s fair to consider longevity as a factor in judging greatness in overall historical context. Still, Flightline has demonstrated freakish talent in his brief span on the racetrack.
Only a handful of horses – in my lifetime – have demonstrated that kind of crushing superiority over 1 1/4 miles on dirt. In my very subjective, personal opinion, Flightline particularly brought to mind Spectacular Bid and Ghostzapper. Arrogate warrants a mention too, albeit to a lesser extent, for one reason.
Hall of Famer Spectacular Bid showcased a similar combination of apparent effortlessness and smothering supremacy. He made a world-record 1:57.80 look like a breeze in the 1980 Charles H. Strub (G1) at Santa Anita, and he galloped away by five lengths under 130 pounds in the Santa Anita H. (G1). Bud Delp’s “greatest horse ever to look through a bridle” was then at the peak of his powers in a perfect four-year-old campaign.
While “The Bid” had been beaten by older Triple Crown champ Affirmed as a three-year-old, I don’t take that as conclusive proof of their relative merits. Affirmed had similarly succumbed to preceding Triple Crown sweeper Seattle Slew as a sophomore himself, but developed into a towering presence at four.
Since the advent of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) in 1984, there have been several brilliant winners, but Ghostzapper (2004) caught the imagination in this context. In his only career start at the 1 1/4-mile distance, he withstood serious pace pressure before pulling off with consummate authority. Flightline is reminiscent of Ghostzapper, in that both were stellar around one turn. That’s not to forget, or underestimate, the claims of Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic hero American Pharoah (2015); it instead emphasizes their different career trajectories.
Arrogate’s front-running track record in the 2016 Travers (G1) earned an unprecedented 124 Speed rating from Brisnet.com. The parallel with Flightline is that Arrogate also left them standing as he opened up by 13 1/2 lengths, if not with the same contemptuous ease. Arrogate would adopt a different running style in ensuing starts, but Flightline’s hallmark will continue to be high cruising speed.
While Flightline got “only” a 117 Brisnet Speed figure for clocking 1:59.28 in the Pacific Classic, I do not take that as a pointer to his historic stature.
Compare the others who have racked up bigger Speed ratings at the distance, a list helpfully supplied by my Brisnet colleague Nazrana Dixon. Hall of Famers Curlin and Easy Goer are in the 118-plus group, but the others in that bracket generally don’t qualify as epoch-making champions.
Top Brisnet Speed Ratings at 1 1/4 miles
|Horse name||Track||Race name||Brisnet Speed rating|
2016 Travers S.
In Excess (IRE)
1991 Suburban H.
2007 Breeders' Cup Classic
2005 Breeders' Cup Classic
1990 Suburban H.
1992 Excelsior H.
Fly Till Dawn
1990 Budweiser International H.
2006 Suburban H.
1990 Breeders' Cup Classic
2003 Breeders' Cup Classic
2022 Pacific Classic S.
1990 Kentucky Derby
2012 Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational S.
2008 Jockey Club Gold Cup S.
2007 Jockey Club Gold Cup S.
Albert the Great
2000 Jockey Club Gold Cup
1995 Breeders' Cup Classic
Just behind Arrogate’s 124 are Curlin and In Excess, who garnered a 121 for their respective wins in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 1991 Suburban H. (G1). Next comes Saint Liam’s 119 in the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Easy Goer is the best member of the 118 Speed figure club, achieved in the Suburban in 1990, the first year of the Brisnet data.
A true assessment of Flightline can come only upon the conclusion of his racing career, when the totality of evidence is available. Yet his Pacific Classic will remain an indelible memory.