Flightline: The best since Secretariat?
When a horse like Flightline comes along, the superlatives flow off the tongue very easily. And it’s hardly surprising when he turns away the best horses in North America as if they are cart horses, as he did in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
But one of the superlatives given to Flightline has almost been sacrilege: a genuine comparison to Secretariat.
Since his retirement in 1973, “Big Red” has been the yardstick for all North American horses. It’s hardly surprising, given his Triple Crown triumph (in record times for each leg), the 31-length Belmont (G1) victory, and his victories over older horses on dirt and turf.
Flightline’s career has been very different to Secretariat’s. He raced just six times over two years, compared to Secretariat’s 21 in the same time period. Flightline was unbeaten, whereas Secretariat was defeated four times on the track and once more in the stewards room. Secretariat raced at the ages of two and three, whereas Flightline lined up at the ages of three and four after injury prevented an early start. Flightline raced only on dirt, whereas Secretariat raced twice on turf, successfully both times.
The real reason the pair are compared is because of the way they disposed of their rivals when at their best. Secretariat went from the outstanding to the truly astonishing with his 31-length Belmont win, in a time that’s still an American record on dirt for 1 1/2 miles.
Flightline put up his version of this effort in the Pacific Classic (G1) with a 19 1/4-length triumph. The margin in Flightline’s case may not have been the same, but the manner was just as disdainful, and the runner-up, Country Grammer, was a Dubai World Cup (G1) winner, arguably better than the second and third in Secretariat’s Belmont, Twice a Prince and My Gallant.
For what it’s worth, Flightline never won a race by less than six lengths, whereas Secretariat matched or exceeded that margin in five of his victories.
So can the pair be reasonably compared? According to some of the experts, it’s at least fair to have a discussion, especially after Flightline proved his Pacific Classic form wasn’t just a one-off with his Breeders’ Cup Classic demolition job.
If it’s of any help, the esteemed British Thoroughbred assessment agency Timeform gave Flightline a 143 rating after his Pacific Classic victory — the highest it’s ever rated a U.S. horse since it began assessing them in 1993, and behind only Frankel (147), Sea-Bird (145), Brigadier Gerard (144), and Tudor Minstrel (144) among European horses, which it first began assessing in 1948. It never rated Secretariat; various writers have suggested his rating might have been anywhere between 143 and 150.
What we can say is that the “best horse since Secretariat” label only belongs to a select group. Given the difficulty comparing horses internationally, this article won’t consider foreign greats like Frankel and Winx and instead will limit the comparison to horses that competed in North America.
Below, then, listed in chronological order, are 10 horses prior to Flightline that could be considered contenders for the “best since Secretariat” title in North American racing since Big Red’s retirement in 1973.
Raced against Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby (G1), finishing fourth, but hit an incredible peak after Secretariat retired. Racing mostly in handicaps, giving away plenty of weight, he was nearly unstoppable for four seasons, winning Horse of the Year in 1974, 1975, and 1976.
Achieved something that neither Secretariat nor any previous Triple Crown winner had done: complete it while remaining undefeated. Eventually tasted defeat but came back as good as ever at four, twice beating the year-younger Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
Became the third Triple Crown winner in six seasons in 1978, and had to beat a great opponent in Alydar in each race to do it. Was also a great four-year-old, maybe even better than at three. He won his last seven races, often conceding big weights, and beat another great champion, Spectacular Bid, at his last start.
A champion juvenile who missed winning the Triple Crown after stepping on a safety pin and an overly-aggressive ride in the Belmont. But like Affirmed, he was equally as good at four, being undefeated in his last nine starts. He was so dominant that no horse dared oppose him in his final race, the Woodward (G1), turning it into a rare walkover victory.
Switched to dirt after performing at a modest level on grass, Cigar became one of the greats as an older horse. He won his final two starts as a four-year-old and then went through his five-year-old season unbeaten in 10 races, culminating with the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He extended his winning streak the following year to 16, equaling Citation’s record, and won the first Dubai World Cup.
Initially thought of as a sprinter, especially after an amazing last-to-first burst to win the 2003 Vosburgh (G1), Ghostzapper showed his versatility in a four-race campaign in 2004. Much like Flightline, he was gradually stepped up in distance, and waltzed home in the Breeders’ Cup Classic by three lengths, producing time performances up with some of the greatest.
Achieved something Secretariat couldn't with an unbelievable 19 consecutive victories to start her career. Endeared herself to the public with her astonishing ability to rally from last in most of her races. After beating up her own gender, she became the first, and to date only, mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009, and went very close to doing so the following year.
After a tough Kentucky Derby victory and an easy Preakness (G1) win, American Pharoah provoked some of the most ecstatic scenes at an American sports venue when winning the 2015 Belmont Stakes and ending the 37-year wait for a Triple Crown. He later became the first horse to win the “Grand Slam” of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic — a race that didn't exist when Secretariat was racing.
One of the most popular — and best — horses of his time. Went close to winning the Triple Crown and then, like Secretariat, proved himself on turf in the Hollywood Derby. But it was as a five-year-old that California Chrome showed true greatness, easily winning the 2016 Dubai World Cup despite a slipped saddle and was similarly dominant in the Pacific Classic before just losing an epic Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Announced his arrival with a spine-tingling Travers (G1) victory by more than 13 lengths. Showed that was no fluke when running down the great California Chrome in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and two starts later recovered from a bad break to circle the field and easily defeat Gun Runner in the 2017 Dubai World Cup. One of the best this century.