LEXINGTON, Ky. – First the dark of night lifted, then the thick mist of a dense fog, which reduced the racehorses to ghostlike silhouettes on Thursday morning, also lifted.
All clear, we are set for takeoff.
It’s perhaps a measure of a horse’s mystique when his rival connections are more effusive than his own trainer is.
Or maybe John Sadler just wants all the talk to be over already, and let’s just get to Saturday and see how high Flightline can soar next. Sadler’s undefeated 4-year-old colt has won five races by a combined 62 3/4 lengths, and although he faces a very challenging field – Grade I winners, all – in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland Race Course on Saturday, Flightline is 3-5 on the morning line, the shortest odds of any favorite among the 14 BC races this weekend.
Until Flightline, whose regular rider is Flavien Prat, ran in the Pacific Classic on Sept. 3, he had not raced longer than a mile.
All he did that day at Del Mar was win by 19 1/4 lengths over Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer, adding another Bunyanesque feat to his relatively short but eye-popping resume.
On Thursday, Sadler said, “The mile and a quarter, that was the question before the Pacific Classic, and he answered that. There’s not much more I can say.”
So let’s hear what some other interested parties can say.
“He is worth every bit of hype,” said Doug O’Neill, who trains Hot Rod Charlie. “He’s just a once-in-a-lifetime type of horse. We have the blessing to watch him train every day at home [in California], and he’s looked equally as impressive out here at Keeneland from what I’ve seen.”
“It’s unbelievably exciting to be a part of,” said Steve Asmussen, who trains Travers winner Epicenter. “Flightline is a physical specimen to watch him train, and I can’t say enough about the condition he’s in and how well John’s done handling him.”
“I’ve been watching him work,” said Bob Baffert, who trains two-time Grade I winner Taiba. “He reminds me of [American] Pharoah, the way he breezes just effortlessly. He just cruises around there. It’s sort of fun watching a great horse train like him. Even though he hasn’t had so many starts, I give him the most respect, because I know what greatness looks like, and believe me, he is great.
“If anything’s going to get him beat, it’s racing luck. I’ve had horses that didn’t get the trip or didn’t break. I know they don’t run the race on paper, but I think he’s an easy good five lengths faster than all of us. Could be seven. Could be 10. We don’t know.”
Baffert trained American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015, and swept the series again in 2018 with Justify.
The burgeoning legend of Flightline has been built on a small sample size of races, but the bay colt, who was purchased for $1 million as a yearling by West Point Thoroughbreds at the 2019 Saratoga Sale, has won as if he’s the only horse in the race once he’s gotten clear.
If there’s any lingering doubt about the depth of competition he’s faced, that will be answered on Saturday.
Besides Epicenter, Taiba and Hot Rod Charlie, Flightline will have to contend with Life Is Good, who has won nine of 11 career starts, including three Grade I’s this year, the Pegasus Worldf Cup at Gulfstream Park, Whitney at Saratoga and Woodward during the Belmont at the Big A meet at Aqueduct.
Olympiad’s only loss from seven starts this year was a fourth in the Whitney, and even the two longest shots on the board, Happy Saver and Rich Strike, are Grade I winners, in the 2020 Jockey Club Gold Cup and this year’s Kentucky Derby, respectively.
“Then you see Taiba come to town and how good he looks and how he’s training, and Olympiad,” Asmussen said. “We’ve watched Life Is Good train for a long time now, and it’s an unbelievably impressive group of horses. Rich Strike, your Derby winner at a mile and a quarter … it’s an extremely anticipated race, and I think everybody will be extremely excited to be a part of it.”
“Life Is Good, I think he’s superior, like Flightline,” Baffert said. “I don’t think there’s a lot separating those two horses, because I had Life Is Good and I know how good he is. I think there’s some nice horses in there. Olympiad, on his best day, Hot Rod Charlie is going to be right there.
“I think it’s a really competitive race, even though Flightline has been so brilliant. And you can’t take that away. A lot of people try to knock him, ‘Well, he hasn’t beaten anything,’ but nothing gets near him. I know what people feel like when they ran against Pharoah and Justify, and now I know the feeling. I just hope my horse … hey, I’ll take second.”
“Life Is Good has just tremendous speed, particularly away from the gate,” Olympiad’s trainer Bill Mott said. “He’s the kind of horse who puts two or three lengths on them right away, and if a horse has trouble picking up the chase, he can get a breather on the front end.
“With Flightline, he’s a horse who maybe isn’t quite as good out of the gate as Life Is Good. He has a little stutter-step leaving the gate, but it looks like after three or four strides, he gets himself together. I’m a fan and I love watching these kinds of races. You try to imagine what the outcome is going to be and how it will shape up.”
Even trainer Chad Brown, who doesn’t have a horse in the Classic, said he’ll be watching this one with extra interest.
He gave an endorsement to the Travers winner Epicenter, the Classic horse he’s seen the most. Not only have Brown’s 3-year-olds run against Epicenter all year, but Brown’s and Asmussen’s Breeders’ Cup horses have been occupying the same barn at Keeneland.
“It should be a hell of a race,” Brown said. “I haven’t run against Life Is Good, but I’ve watched him train a bunch, and another horse that’s been managed really well by Todd [Pletcher].
“And then you have Steve’s 3-year-old that I’ve gotten to battle with, Epicenter. I was lucky to get him one time, in the Preakness, but most of the time he got me. I’m very, very impressed with Epicenter all year.
“He’s a very consistent horse, and Steve and his team, what a job managing this horse through the Triple Crown and still having him sound and moving good and looking as good as ever. He’s in the barn with me here, and he looks as if he’s just starting the season, in his flesh and his condition. I’ve turned from a rival of him to a fan of him because I’m not in the race and I’m marveling at him, the way he looks.”
If Flightline is the buzz horse, the BC Distaff is the buzz race, based on the matchup of the two best older females dirt route horses in North America, Malathaat and Clairiere, against the 3-year-old Nest, complemented by some other tough multiple graded stakes winners, including Search Results and Society.
Malathaat is coming off back-to-back wins in the Spinster at Keeneland and the Personal Ensign at Saratoga, while Clairiere will be looking to shake off a fifth in the Personal Ensign in which she acted up in the starting gate and finished the race with a bloody mouth.
“I don’t think you can draw a line through anything. You can just simply try to correct,” Asmussen said. “She has had several schooling sessions at the gates here and has been very comfortable there. Hopefully, we have that behind us.
“That was her only badly timed little bit of an episode, but it wasn’t her day. If we are fortunate enough to have success in the Distaff here on Saturday, we will be happy that it happened on that day and not in the Breeders’ Cup.”
Malathaat and Nest, who swept the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama at Saratoga, are trained by Todd Pletcher.
They’re a combined 4-for-4 at Keeneland, both having won the Grade I Ashland as 3-year-olds.
“It is a contentious field,” Pletcher said. “There are some other really good fillies in there. It is certainly not a match race between the stablemates. They are both coming up to the race great. We have been here before with what we thought was a strong group and that does not always equate to wins.”
The 3-year-old Society, also trained by Asmussen, could be dangerous on the lead as the only proven early speed horse.
That’s how she won the Grade I Cotillion at Parx by 5 3/4 lengths last time out.
“I like the fact she’s in there because she’ll [Search Results] have a target,” said Brown, who trains Search Results. “Not that Society can’t take them all the way. She certainly can. That last race she ran was brilliant, and she’s a quality horse and is 3, so she’s getting weight allowance, so she’s going to be dangerous to reel in. But I do like Search Results with something to look at, even if it’s a horse who’ll be tough to get by.”
ALSO ON THE CARD
The best turf sprinter in North America, Golden Pal, will be trying to win a Breeders’ Cup race for the third year in a row, as the 2-1 favorite in the BC Turf Sprint. He won that race last year and the BC Juvenile Turf Sprint in 2020.
“I think that says a lot for how I’ve been professing this horse to be so great from the onset,” trainer Wesley Ward said. “The only thing that he hasn’t done that I wish he could do would be to go back to Royal Ascot and win The King’s Stand, and he won’t get a chance to do that. But if he can win three Breeders’ Cups, that really puts him in elite company.”
Brown will be trying to win the BC Filly & Mare Turf for the fifth time, and has three good shots at it, as Rougir, Virginia Joy and Diana winner In Italian will line up next to each other in posts 9, 10 and 11, respectively.
“In Italian should probably make the lead here,” Brown said. “Then the other ones are off-the-pace type of horses. Virginia Joy is versatile, but in this kind of race, on a cutback [in distance], she’s clearly off the pace.
“And Rougir is coming off her best race of the year in the E.P. Taylor, so she’s got a shot in there. She couldn’t be training any better.”
Brown also has the 3-1 favorite in the Filly & Mare Sprint, Ballerina winner Goodnight Olive.
She has won at Keeneland, in a maiden race just over a year ago.
“She’s got a race over the track, albeit far back,” Brown said. “She’s in the best form of her life, she’s training super here and she looks good, so she may be one of our better chances on the weekend.
“I think you want to be more forward than back on this track. Not that it’s biased in any way, but I think it maybe gives you a better chance if you’re forward. Wavell Avenue won this race from mid-pack, and I’d say that’s about as far back as you want to be.”
Unlike Golden Pal, Jackie’s Warrior is 0-for-2 at the Breeders’ Cup, and still won the male sprint championship last year.
As the only horse to ever win a Grade I at Saratoga three years in a row, he’ll get one more crack at the BC Sprint before being retired, coming off a loss to Cody’s Wish in the Forego.
“I honestly think he needed it [a tough race],” Asmussen said. “I think he was vulnerable because of how easily he had won every race going into the year. Then you met an unbelievably talented horse that threw his ‘A’ game, and I think Jackie needed it. The year had been a little too easy on him to that point.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: At The Track, Sports, Sports