Racing Roundtable: How great is Flightline?

September 6th, 2022

Talk of the remarkable Flightline kicks off this week's Racing Roundtable, with takeaways from the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) and the major two-year-old stakes at Saratoga also in the discussion involving James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson.

Where do you rate Flightline among horses seen in the last quarter-century?

James Scully: His Pacific Classic (G1) ranks as the greatest performance of the last quarter-century, and Flightline has one more showcase remaining this season, the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) on Nov. 5. It promises to be quite the spectacle at Keeneland. Flightline has the cache to draw interest from casual fans, and the unbeaten superstar can put to rest any debate about his ranking with another sparkling performance.

Kellie Reilly: The Pacific Classic put Flightline in rarefied air, a different level from his one-turn artistry. I'm leery of trying to make specific rankings at all, since it feels so subjective, especially while he's still in resume-building mode. But Flightline won in the manner of an all-time great, reminiscent of legends Secretariat and Spectacular Bid. By definition, then, he belongs in the discussion with 21st-century titans Ghostzapper and American Pharoah. Ghostzapper is a nearer analog to lightly-raced Flightline, as a freak of nature from sprints to 1 1/4 miles. American Pharoah's claims rest on his overall body of work in historic context, as a champion two-year-old who ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought and beat elders in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Where Flightline ultimately fits, therefore, depends upon his future accomplishments. For now, suffice to say he's shown an unreal level of talent in just five starts.

Vance Hanson: From what we've seen so far, at or near the top, though comparisons will always be difficult given the expected brevity of Flightline's career. Ghostzapper and American Pharoah made their eternal mark in just 11 starts, while peak Arrogate did so in less time. In contrast to them, Flightline needed relatively little "warm-up" to showcase his innate talent in dazzling fashion. As much awe as he generates within the industry, it's unfortunate that he is unlikely to transcend its boundaries and make an impact upon a wider audience. It's one of the downsides to this era's adoption of stealth campaigning.

Was the Jockey Club Gold Cup a meaningful prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic?

JS: No, the pace was soft and I will look to fade the top two finishers (Olympiad and Americanrevolution) in vertical exotics for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Any value from the Gold Cup comes from excusing the performances of First Captain, Keepmeinmind, and Dynamic One – the late runners are eligible to show more with a legitimate setup – but none have much appeal for the Classic.

KR: From both a form and pace perspective, the Jockey Club Gold Cup doesn't figure to be informative for the Classic. Olympiad didn't face the three who beat him in the Whitney (G1) – Life Is Good, Happy Saver, and Hot Rod Charlie – so you can argue he didn't really need to improve to win. And the pace was a lot slower, playing into Olympiad's hands while disadvantaging a few others. The Classic promises to unfold very differently, with Flightline and Life Is Good ensuring a strenuous pace. Olympiad could well continue his progress for the masterful Bill Mott, but the Gold Cup clues aren't much to lean on themselves.

VH: I don't believe so. While Olympiad returned to the form he had displayed before the Whitney, he was again the beneficiary of an ideal trip. The pace was slow and he was perfectly positioned to overtake an overmatched rival and go from there. The rest largely had little chance or were simply not good enough. Olympiad has yet to overcome severe adversity this season, and he can not necessarily expect scenarios to keep working in his favor. Americanrevolution is the only other horse to consider out of the Gold Cup, but he seems a slight cut below Olympiad in general. He would arguably be a stronger contender in a Cigar Mile (G1) title defense in December than in the Classic a month earlier.

What are your takeaways from the Hopeful and Spinaway?

JS: After a troubled fourth as the favorite in the Sanford (G3), Forte rebounded nicely in Hopeful, rallying up the inside to score by three lengths, but the sloppy track makes it a difficult race to gauge. The Todd Pletcher-trained Forte received a commendable 101 Brisnet Speed rating, and the Violence colt is bred to favor longer distances on his dam side. Leave No Trace improved to 2-for-2 with a 14-1 upset in the Spinaway, withstanding the late run of 7-5 favorite Wonder Wheel to score by a 1 1/2-length margin, but she did not come home quick and earned only an 88 Speed rating.

KR: The Hopeful's sloppy track was a big variable for the two-year-olds, so I'm inclined to treat the result with caution. To be fair, Forte was certainly the type to move forward off the Sanford. But an 18-length form reversal with Sanford winner Mo Strike was likely influenced by conditions. Beaten favorite Gulfport wound up second again, as in the Saratoga Special (G2). While not tantamount to the tough beats suffered by stablemate Epicenter in the Triple Crown, Gulfport nevertheless hasn't had the best of luck at the Spa, and he could be a different proposition back in Kentucky. The Spinaway likewise left loose ends rather than producing a tidy result. Leave No Trace deserves credit for running the most professional race in victory, but if runner-up Wonder Wheel had gotten organized sooner, or fourth-placer American Rockette hadn't taken a hard right turn out of the gate, the outcome might have been different.

VH: My general takeaway is that the Hopeful appears as if it will be have more impact on the juvenile colt division than the Spinaway will have on the juvenile filly division. Although the Hopeful lacked depth and was run over a sloppy track, Forte took a big step forward off a disappointing run in the Sanford earlier in the meet. It appears he can be a major player in the Champagne (G1) and Breeders' Cup. I'm taking a wait-and-see approach with Leave No Trace, who upset the Spinaway after winning an auction maiden first out. The Spinaway itself was on the slow side, and presumably she'll need to show further progression next out.