Flightline's Breeders' Cup Classic on the clock

November 7th, 2022

Flightline’s tour de force in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) was not only visually impressive. The unbeaten superstar delivered a performance of historical proportions on the clock, both on raw times at Keeneland, and more significantly, by Brisnet Pace data for the Breeders’ Cup Classic going back to 1990.

The Classic produced the fastest fractions of 51 dirt races contested at 1 1/4 miles at Keeneland since 1991, according to statistics furnished by Equibase.

The dirt is a key qualifier, since Keeneland’s main oval was Polytrack from the 2006 fall meet through the 2014 spring meet. The Lexington, Kentucky, venue returned to dirt by the 2014 fall meet. Thus the Equibase comparisons are drawing upon both the old and new dirt surfaces. The other significant factor is that, outside of hosting the Breeders’ Cup in 2015, 2020, and 2022, Keeneland does not stage any major races at the 1 1/4-mile distance.

Flightline's Classic performance by Brisnet Pace figures

So to furnish more meaningful historical context, let’s dive into the Brisnet Pace data, specifically the E1 and E2 figures. For route races, the E1 figure quantifies the horse’s speed through the first half-mile, and the E2 figure typically covers the first six furlongs. In 1 1/4-mile races, E2 reflects the one-mile split.

Flightline posted the fastest E1 figure of any Breeders’ Cup Classic winner since Brisnet began publishing these figures in 1990 – a 110. Only three other winners reached triple-digit territory in the E1 category, Gun Runner (a 107 at Del Mar in 2017); Cat Thief (a 104 at Gulfstream Park in 1999); and Mucho Macho Man (a 101 at Santa Anita in 2013).

Flightline’s E2 figure, a 126, ranks second of all Breeders’ Cup Classic winners since 1990. Gun Runner racked up the top E2 of 132. Cat Thief is third on the list behind Flightline, with a 124.

As you’d expect for winners involved in a ferocious early pace, their Late Pace (LP) figures decelerate. Cat Thief slowed least of this trio, with a 97 LP rating, but in a competitive race. Flightline glided in with a 90, followed by Gun Runner in command through an 86.

Of this fastest-early trio, Cat Thief recorded the highest Brisnet Speed figure for his final overall time, a 115. Flightline and Gun Runner both earned a 113.

Not surprisingly, the Classic winners with the all-time top Speed ratings deployed their energy effectively over the entire distance, and didn’t go quite so fast early. Curlin’s 121 in the Monmouth Park slop in 2007 is the highest Speed rating in the Classic, followed by Saint Liam’s 119 at Belmont Park in 2005. Unbridled (1990) and Cigar (1995) each registered a 117 at Belmont, and Pleasantly Perfect (2003) matched them at Santa Anita.

Flightline’s running style predisposes him to extreme E1 and E2 figures. His high cruising speed takes everyone else out of their comfort zone before annihilating them, leaving the Late Pace number moot as he wins for fun.

The Classic pace at Keeneland: 2022 vs. 2015 and 2020

Now let’s turn to the 2022 Classic fractions themselves, in the context of Keeneland’s past three decades.

The ominous presence of Flightline pushed pacesetter Life Is Good to blaze an opening quarter in :22.55. That’s the fastest initial split in a 1 1/4-mile race on Keeneland’s dirt oval since 1991; to find the next-fastest, you have to go back about two decades, to Apr. 18, 2003, when Grande Cache fired :22.64 in a starter allowance.

The previous two Breeders’ Cup Classics at Keeneland weren’t even close. American Pharoah (2015) waltzed in :23.99, and Authentic (2020) went in :23.20, both enjoying their ideal scenarios loose on the lead.

Life Is Good’s half-mile in :45.47 is the swiftest in a race of this distance at Keeneland in 22 years, by more than a full second. In a starter allowance on Oct. 25, 2000, Proviso ripped in :46.55. Authentic boasts the third-best in :46.84, and again, American Pharoah had it even easier in :47.50. This is reflected in their E1 figures, American Pharoah registering an 85 and Authentic a 99.

Only by the six-furlong split do Authentic and American Pharoah come into the picture as the second- and third-fastest at this track and trip. Yet Authentic’s 1:10.32 and American Pharoah’s 1:11.21 are still some way behind Life Is Good’s punishing 1:09.27. (That is the corrected split as of Nov. 8, after the initial chart listed 1:09.62.) 

As another angle of approach, compare Life Is Good’s time to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) earlier on Saturday’s card, won by the rallying Elite Power in 1:09.11. Life Is Good was only a half-second off that final clocking in the Sprint, while just 60% of the way through a 1 1/4-mile championship event.

Flightline headed Life Is Good by the next call in 1:34.58, the fastest mile split in a 1 1/4-mile race at Keeneland. That just shaded Authentic’s mile in 1:34.64, and remained almost a full second ahead of American Pharoah’s third-best of 1:35.47. Authentic’s and American Pharoah’s E2 figures are 111 and 118, respectively.

With Life Is Good a spent force, and the rest too far behind to pose any sort of threat, Flightline had no reason to be ridden out in his final quarter-mile. He galloped in splendid isolation, content with a final time of 2:00.05, rather than chasing Authentic’s 1:59.60 track record.

Interestingly, Authentic received a 111 Speed rating, revealing that the track was playing faster for his Classic. American Pharoah, who struck top gear after his leisurely beginning, set a then-record in 2:00.07, which was good for a 114. 

Flightline saved his record-setting simply for the winning margin in a Classic. His 8 1/4-length triumph bettered the old mark of 6 1/2 lengths shared by American Pharoah and Volponi (2002).

As Flightline now retires to stud, the debates will ensue about where he stacks up historically with only six starts. If your benchmark for greatness demands a longer resume over time, he’s nevertheless won his races in an extraordinary manner. Flightline’s apparently effortless speed, stamina, and demoralizing effect on his opposition will live long in the memory.