Hanson: A case for Flightline's early retirement
While a significant and vocal segment of racing fans are disappointed Flightline won't be reappearing on the racetrack in 2023, the "he has nothing more to prove" argument is actually a sound one, considering what another three-race campaign would or would not entail.
There are lucrative early-season targets available, like the Pegasus World Cup (G1), Saudi Cup (G1) and Dubai World Cup (G1). But how competitive of a race would the Pegasus be, given the current landscape? How would traveling across the world to compete in the Middle East move the needle when the ability to attend either event is generally beyond the means of the average fan?
Title defenses of his three wins this year would likely come up short in the intrigue department. For example, there's no chance Flightline would be asked to shoulder 135 or more pounds in the Metropolitan H. (G1), just to make it interesting. The Pacific Classic (G1) and Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) are weight-for-age events that wouldn't appear to be fair fights, especially the latter over his home track of Santa Anita.
In other words, we would be unlikely to glean more about his talent, or able to make a better comparison between him and historical greats of the past, after nine starts than we are after the six jaw-dropping performances he has already given us.
This isn't an argument against running horses more often, which we all would prefer in an ideal world. It's simply an acknowledgement of the current economic realities whereby horses of Flightline's stature are investments and commodities first and potential mainstream sports celebrities a distant also-ran.
The decision to retire Flightline was really not all that surprising, nor unusual historically, when it comes to older male champions, as Flightline will be. In the Eclipse Award era, since 1971, non-gelded champion older males that came back for another season rarely stayed at the top. Two exceptions were Cigar and Skip Away, both of whom won Horse of the Year titles. Others, like Ghostzapper, Invasor, and Acclamation, ultimately made limited appearances.
Lemhi Gold, Vanlandingham, and Ferdinand never came close to maintaining their championship form. The worst result of all was that of 1972 champion Autobiography, who suffered a fatal injury in his second start at age five.
The last couple of decades have shown that the best colts and entire older males are campaigned far differently in 21st century America than most of their predecessors were in the 20th. Still, history figures to show Flightline as an outlier, being whisked off to stud after a mere six outings. It takes an extremely rare talent to achieve what he did in such a short period, and for that he will be considered unique among the all-time greats.
Comparing Flightline with those from the last century is largely an apples and oranges debate, but he certainly stacks up favorably with the likes of Ghostzapper, who was also handled very judiciously in this era of stealth campaigning.
Flightline has reached the zenith in amazing fashion, and history suggests it is perhaps wise that he depart the stage a legend under the modern criteria.