Liftoff: Flightline dominates Breeders’ Cup Classic

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Flightline and Flavien Prat roll to victory in Saturday’s $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire Photo.

John Sadler – and so many others – can’t say it enough when it comes to Flightline.

“Brilliant is his normal,” Sadler said this week as the days became hours leading up to the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland Race Course.

Naysayers discounted the statement, made as the unbeaten 4-year-old son of Tapit readied for his biggest challenge in the 10-furlong Classic against the likes of Life Is Good, Epicenter, Taiba, Olympiad and Hot Rod Charlie.

Wise guys tried to find a way to beat him, grasping any angle they could with hopes of cashing a ticket in the biggest race on the biggest day of racing on North American soil.

Fans, Turf writers and broadcasters seemed to fall in line this week, and by the time the gates sprung for the 39th Classic in the heart of horse country there was no avoiding the obvious and Flightline’s odds read 2-5 on Keeneland’s high-definition infield screen.

Flightline ran to his odds, and then some, destroying seven opponents just as he’d done in his previous five starts. Under Flavien Prat, Flightline chased Life Is Good’s rocket-fast pace with ease and cruised to an 8 1/4-length victory in 2:00.05. Olympiad ran second, winning a three-way battle over 3-year-olds Taiba and Rich Strike for the place spot that would have been an epic battle for the win in just about any other renewal of the continent’s richest race.

Flightline proved again he wasn’t just any other Classic winner, or top-flight racehorse, as he bolstered his resume with a third Grade 1 victory this season and fourth overall. A Horse of the Year title now looms, along with a champion older dirt male crown, and Flightline probably shouldn’t even be compared to the best of the best in 2022.

“In the words of Bud Delp, he’s one of the best horses to look through a bridle,” Sadler said in the post-race press conference, flanked by Flightline’s breeder and co-owner Jane Lyon and co-owners Kosta Hronis of Hronis Racing and Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds.

Comparisons to the Delp-trained Spectacular Bid, a member of the Hall of Fame, Horse of the Year, three-time Eclipse Award champion and winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1979, didn’t seem so much of a stretch in the setting sun of Central Kentucky Saturday night.

Stephanie Hronis, Kosta Hronis’ wife who has seen more than her share of top horses, called the performance “astronomical.”

Bill Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer of runner-up Olympiad who trained two-time Horse of the Year and 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Cigar, could only shake his head.

“How could you be more pleased?” Mott said. “We’re here on the wrong year. His race would have won some other Classics.”

Bob Baffert, another Hall of Fame trainer who sent out Taiba to be third, got another good look at Flightline and put him up there with some of the greats that walked the shedrow of his California barn.

“He just reminds me of American Pharoah,” Baffert said. “He’s a beast. I’ve been watching him. John Sadler has done a tremendous job with him. He deserves that win the way he handled him. Just a tremendous racehorse. Horses like him, Pharoah, Justify, Arrogate, they don’t come along very often. I’ve watched him train.”

Junior Alvarado, who won his first Breeders’ Cup race Saturday aboard Cody’s Wish in the Dirt Mile, had the closest view of Flightline at the finish; and John Velazquez had the farthest of the finishers aboard seventh-place Happy Saver, and both came to the same conclusion.

“What a break to have a horse like Flightline in the race,” Alvarado said. “That was a race like you might see in 60 or 70 years, once in a lifetime, period. I am happy that I will forever be known as the guy who finished second to Flightline in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

“I mean, all you can say is ‘wow,’ ” Velazquez said. “That horse is definitely a freak of nature.”

Lyon, who bred and raised said freak of nature at her Summer Wind Farm in nearby Georgetown, wiped away tears walking from the winner’s circle through the crowd and to the post-race press conference. Bobby Spalding, Summer Wind’s manager who called Flightline a superstar when he sold for $1 million to top the opening night of the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings.

Spalding gave all the credit to Lyon, and basked in Flightline’s brilliance that followed victories by a combined 71 lengths.

“She’s the best, and so is he,” Spalding said.

Out of the Grade 3 winning Indian Charlie mare Feathered, Flightline garnered plenty of presale buzz in Saratoga and even more leading up to the Classic.

Rival horsemen in the Classic, and others in the 13 World Championships races leading up to the main event, conceded him as the one to beat. Bettors obliged by post time and as the wind whipped through Keeneland’s picturesque grounds, Flightline hovered between 1-5 and 1-2 in the wagering. He went to the post 2-5, with Travers winner Epicenter the 6-1 second choice, Pennsylvania Derby and Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba and Whitney and Pegasus World Cup winner Life Is Good both at 8-1. The others in the field, including Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, Hot Rod Charlie, Olympiad and Happy Saver, were all double-digit longshots.

Life Is Good and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. threw down the gauntlet early, taking the lead from the break and rolling through strong splits of :22.55, :45.47 and 1:09.62. The Classic’s initial 6-furlong split was posted as 1:07 and change – and it felt like it with the field strung out more than 25 lengths front to back – before being changed on the official chart.

Prat and Flightline put pressure on Life Is Good around the far turn, took over approaching the stretch and turned for home in front to a full-throated roar from the 45,973 in the grandstand and clubhouse, temporary boxes, VIP tents and every corner of the limestone laden facility. Flightline left no doubt in the lane, drawing away with ease to more cheers under a stoic Prat. They opened up by more than 5 in midstretch before cruising past the finish well clear of Olympiad, who edged Taiba by a half-length with Rich Strike 2 ½ lengths back in fourth.

“We were expecting a great run from him,” Prat said. “He was an old pro. He broke sharp. I was worried that because he never really breaks super sharp. … I felt like was in control the whole race. Once I broke well and was where I wanted to be, I was in control. You never know what to expect because it’s horse racing. Sometimes it doesn’t happen the way you think it will.”

Everything with Flightline happened the way his people expected, from growing up at Summer Wind to selling at Saratoga. Unraced at 2, he started his career in April 2021 at Santa Anita and ultimately put together a path to the Breeders’ Cup – even one delayed by minor injuries (a scar-leaving gash to his hindquarters, foot abscess, strained hock) – from that maiden win to a Del Mar allowance in September, the Grade 1 Malibu in December, the Grade 1 Met Mile in June and the Grade 1 Pacific Classic in September.

Saturday, he won by the largest margin in the history of the Classic – topping the previous mark shared by 2015 winner American Pharoah and 2002 winner Volponi – and in the 10th fastest time.

“It was the coolest thing all week to be in town and to be around … people, they just had a sparkle in their eye when they talked about Flightline,” Finley said. “I’ve said it, we’re all fans at heart. And obviously privileged to be part of this horse.”

NOTES: Flightline’s victory capped a record day at Keeneland, which saw total all-sources, global common-pool handle of $189,060,373. The record total was a 3.4 percent increase from the prior record of $182,908,409 set in 2021 at Del Mar. On-track handle for the two days was $28,326,478, and total attendance for the meeting was 85,824. … Epicenter, pulled up on the backstretch by Joel Rosario, was taken to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital and diagnosed with a repairable displaced condylar fracture to his right front leg. The Travers and Jim Dandy winner is expected to undergo surgery Sunday morning. … Ryan Moore, who rode Tuesday to win the Maker’s Filly and Mare Turf, Victoria Road in the Juvenile Turf and Meditate in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, earned the 20th Bill Shoemaker Award for the outstanding jockey of the Breeders’ Cup. The award goes to the jockey who rides the most winners in the 14 championship races with the tiebreaker being 10-3-1 point system for second- through fourth-place finishes.

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