Flightline’s Classic win: Does it rate vs. Big Red?


Bob Wisener

The Sentinel-Record

A reader once took me to task in a letter to the editor for opining that, after beating Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Blame should be Horse of the Year in 2010.

A local nurse commented along similar lines one day as she was discharging this walk-in patient from a clinic.

Call it a momentary lapse, that in this racing town one neither tugs on Superman's cape, spits in the wind or makes a negative comment regarding Zenyatta. What did that newspaper editor tell James Stewart in a John Ford movie? When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Big Mama, with a 19-1 record, did more for racing on the track (though, sadly, fate has conspired against her in the breeding shed) than Blame in his watershed moment. That's one reason this column is entitled "On Second Thought," in this case, a racing writer of more than 40 years requests a do-over in print.

Racing historians may spend hours in psychology class going over the 2022 Classic. Then again. in a day that racing no longer is in the sports mainstream, perhaps not; writers and sportscasters seem more conversant on Kyrie Irving and how much longer Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have as pro quarterbacks.

A point made here on social media Saturday was that Flightline's BC Classic victory at Keeneland deserves comparison with Secretariat's 1973 Belmont Stakes, a race known equally for the winner's margin (31 lengths) and final time (mile and a half in world-record 2:24). Jockey Ron Turcotte's peek over the shoulder for rivals late aboard the westbound Queens train from Montauk is the defining moment of that June afternoon at Belmont Park.

Flightline won by 8 1/4 lengths in 2 minutes "and change" for a mile and a quarter. That was decisive enough to reward the bettors who made him 2-5 toteboard favorite. Lest anyone question the competition, these were some of the best horses in training, the Kentucky Derby and Travers winners among them, with Hall of Famers Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher among their trainers, entered for a $6 million purse.

Racing lacks a Joe Hirsch, longtime Daily Racing Form columnist, to assess horses through the generations. Which horse was better in his Triple Crown season: Citation or Secretariat? As BC Classics go, was Flightline's effort Saturday on a par with that of American Pharoah over the same track in 2015 or Skip Away's at Hollywood Park in 1997? Such debates hold my attention longer than endless prattle about speed figures and the like.

Flightline, whether or not he's to be mentioned with the immortals after a 6-for-6 career, at least got some people talking about racing again.

Life Is Good set a target for the winner, capitulating after a mile when 11 lengths clear of the third-place horse. Ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., Life is Good ran fractions one would expect from this caliber -- the half in 45.57 seconds, three quarters in 1:09.62. Not thought of as a true 10-furlong horse, the former Baffert trainee (now with Pletcher) checked in fifth yet should be remembered for enhancing the effort by Flightline.

Rich Strike still hasn't won since wearing Kentucky Derby roses at 80-1 odds but closed for fourth at a reasonable 24-1. The only glitch was an injury to Derby and Preakness runner-up Epicenter, his last-out Travers win likely opening a window to the male 3-year-old title.

Secret Oath, a commendable fifth in the Distaff with her best effort since winning the Kentucky Oaks, finished 3 1/4 lengths back of winner Malathaat. Good news came Sunday from Keeneland that the Arrogate filly was withdrawn from a sale with talk of a 4-year-old campaign. Her love for Oaklawn confers early favoritism, at least locally, in April's Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap. Racing needs trainer Wayne Lukas, forever young at 87, front and center with a top horse.

Jackie's Warrior, Oaklawn's Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap winner in April for Asmussen, disappointed in the Sprint again as as he did last year at Del Mar, though named 2021's champion sprinter. Brad Cox did all right on the two-day program and Chad Brown won Saturday's BC opener, though not with a turf horse. The Europeans cleaned up both days with trainer Charlie Appleby and mighty Godolphin Stable deserving kudos.

And, as with Accelerate in 2018 down the road at Churchill Downs, the Classic belonged to West Coast trainer John Sadler. Flightline is your Horse of the Year and whether he outshone Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont is something for clear-headed racing fans to discuss.

Flightline was foaled the same year (2018) that Justify won the Triple Crown in a super-nova of a career. It was written here then of Justify what can be said now of Flightline: "He's everything they said he was."