How High is High For Flightline

People have been buzzing about Flightline’s other-worldly performance in the Pacific Classic, as they have about all his previous races. Now it is time to see just who Flightline is and where he came from.~ Steve Haskin

How High is High For Flightline?

By Steve Haskin

“Oh, good lord!” That was the initial response uttered by trainer Chad Brown at Saratoga on Sunday when he was asked what he thought of Flightline’s performance in the previous day’s Pacific Classic. It pretty much summed up people’s reactions. Brown added, “I honestly don’t think Ghostzapper could have run with this horse.” That was the highest of praise coming from someone who learned his trade in the Bobby Frankel barn where the name Ghostzapper was God-like. Neither Brown nor Frankel had ever been around a horse as great as the 2004 Horse of the Year, who was able to perform magic on the racetrack with his devastating performances at all distances.

But Flightline has proven to be in a class by himself. Whether you were a fan of Secretariat or Dr. Fager or Forego or whatever legend you worshipped there is no way you can say that Flightline in only five career starts is more talented or more accomplished than many of the all-time greats of the sport. But what you can say is that you have never seen anything like him at this stage of his career.

There have been horses who on their best day demolished their opposition while running blazing-fast times. But there has never been a horse who has done it in every race, winning by an average margin of 12 ½ lengths while jumping from six furlongs to seven furlongs to a flat mile to a mile and a quarter and doing it effortlessly every time.

As the late great English racecaller Peter O’Sullevan used to say when he saw something out of the ordinary, “What manner of horse is this?”

I can easily answer that. Flightline is a horse who can jump into a Grade 1 stakes for the first time in his career and win by 11 ½ lengths in a sizzling 1:21 1/5 for seven furlongs under wraps the length of the stretch. He is a horse who can then travel cross-country off a 5 ½-month layoff and win arguably the toughest race in the country to win, the historic Met Mile, and despite a poor start and having to steady twice, win by six lengths in an eye-popping 1:33 2/5. Then after an almost three-month layoff he goes a mile and a quarter and two turns for the first time in the Pacific Classic and finishes in another zip code ahead of a field loaded with Grade 1 and Grade 2 winners. In the end he was 19 ¼ lengths ahead of the runner-up without raising a sweat, his time of 1:59 1/5 was a fifth of a second off the track record, and he earned an outrageous 126 Beyer speed figure.

But in many ways we still have no idea what manner of horse this is. Some three hours earlier at Saratoga, Olympiad was winning The Jockey Club Gold Cup, his sixth win in his last seven starts, and Flightline made that race and perhaps the winner seem insignificant when discussing the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But as Olympiad’s trainer Bill Mott said the following day about facing Flightline at Keeneland, “That was a Secretariat-type performance, but somebody’s got to run against him. You can’t let him run around there by himself.” Unfortunately for rival trainers that’s pretty much what he does anyway.

John Shirreffs, who had a ringside seat for the latest Flightline fiasco in the Pacific Classic, saddling Santa Anita Handicap winner Express Train, said, “I don’t think he even felt any pressure from the other horses in the race. Down the stretch he looked like he was running downhill. It was exceptional. He galloped for a while with the other horses and then galloped away.”

That has become Flightline’s m.o. – just gallop away.

But where did this freak of a racehorse come from and when did he first start showing these freakish gifts to those around him? We know the son of Tapit, out of the Indian Charlie mare Feathered, was purchased by bloodstock agent David Ingordo for the Hronis brothers, West Point Thoroughbreds, William S. Farish Jr.’s Woodford Racing, Summer Wind Equine (the colt’s breeder), and Siena Farm at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale for $1 million, consigned by Farish’s Lane’s End Farm as agent.

It was West Point that signed the sales slip, with Ingordo serving as the connector between several of the buyers. Terry Finley, president of West Point had gone to the Lane’s End consignment and fell in love with First Captain, who would go on to be a top-class stakes colt for him. But then he saw Flightline.

“David was smitten with him at the farm and when I saw him he looked like your typical Lane’s End type of horse,” Finley said. “He had such a beautiful head and I thought, ‘Man, this is what they’re supposed to look like.’”

Lane’s End Farm was always in on the colt, consigning him and then buying him under the name Woodford Stud. “Jane Lyon (of Summer Wind) prepped him and he was just a standout yearling all along,” said Bill Farish. “He was beautiful physically and had a great pedigree, which is why he brought a million dollars. We first started hearing positive things about him from April Mayberry”

After the sale the colt was sent to Mayberry in Ocala, Florida to be broken and given his early training. Mayberry has been around many top-class horses, the most notable being Zenyatta, so she knows when something special comes along. But even she had trouble finding the words to describe Flightline.

“I don’t know a word for him,” she said. “He’s just…I don’t know, a shining star for the industry. I can’t find the right adjective other than he’s amazing.”

Mayberry always breezes her young horses in company, but with Flightline she made an exception and had her top exercise rider Jorge Orancez breeze him by himself, which surprised him and the other riders. When he asked for reassurance that’s what she wanted to do, she told him, “I don’t want him in company. Just let him go down the stretch and let’s see what he does.” Her reasoning was the colt was giving off so much energy and he covered so much ground in his gallops she was afraid he might get too aggressive too soon breezing in company.

“He was so smart,” Mayberry said. “He would just stand on the track watching the horses train. It was like he was watching a tennis match, his head going back and forth as the horses went by him. He was so easy to break, there was no question he was going to be a good horse.”

So Mayberry watched his first breeze and couldn’t believe what she saw. “It took my breath away,” she said. “It was so effortless.” Immediately following the breeze Mayberry called David Ingordo and told him, “You need to come down here. This colt just gave me chills.” She later added, “He‘s unlike anything I’ve ever had. It was surreal. I just wanted someone to validate it.”

Ingordo, who had picked out Zenyatta at the sales for Jerry and Ann Moss, had seen him at Lane’s End Farm before the sale and as Mayberrry said, “was drawn to him.” But he didn’t say anything to his mother Dottie (who was the racing manager for the Mosses) or her husband John Shirreffs. “David doesn’t say much if anything about the horses he buys for other people,” Dottie said. Shirreffs added, “David never mentioned him to me.” That wasn’t surprising how stoic Ingordo is in general. Finley says he can be a little quirky, but when it comes to horses he is “a savant.”

So Ingordo went down to the farm to watch him breeze. Unfortunately while on the trainer’s stand waiting for the colt, Mayberry received a call from the barn. The colt had gotten very playful in his stall and reared up, lost his balance and struck his rump on the hinges of the stall door, tearing a big hunk of flesh off that needed to be stitched up. When she got back to the barn his groom was in tears. Thankfully it was nothing serious and Flightline was back on the track in three months. But he had lost valuable time which is why he didn’t make is debut until late April of his 3-year-old campaign.

When he got back to training he picked up right where he left off. “He knew how good he was right from the beginning,” Mayberry said. “He just did everything so effortlessly. He was such a joy to be around.”

After the colt was sent to John Sadler it didn’t take the trainer long to see the same things Mayberry saw. Through periodic reports from the barn, Mayberry knew he was capable of doing something very special in his debut, as did Kosta Hronis.

Before Flightline’s much-anticipated first race on April 24 Hronis was focused on getting his undefeated Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World to the Kentucky Derby. But in one of our texts, he threw this in from left field” “I’ve got one in the barn that is unbelievable.”

Terry Finley recalled, “After John Sadler’s assistant Juan Leyva who had been a jockey, jogged this horse for the first time, he took a video of him and sent it to his wife, who is a horsewoman herself. When she watched the video and heard her husband talk about the horse she started crying. Juan told her, ‘This is the best horse I’ve ever sat on and will ever sit on.’ And this was just jogging him. So you can say it was very early that this horse had the markings of greatness.”

Farish corroborated that story. “When he got to Sadler it was Juan who first got excited. He sent the video to his wife and she got very emotional watching it. When John first worked him we got a call from him saying, ‘Look, I don’t know how good this horse is, but I can tell you he is really good.’”

Mayberry said she was expecting an amazing performance in his debut, which he won by 13 ¼ lengths in 1:08 3/5. “It was the presence he gave off every time you were around him; you just know,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised by his victory. I was waiting so long to see him run and knew he had that in him if he was the horse I thought he was. I had so much confidence in him.”

Hronis texted me after his debut: “It’s only one race, but Flightline is the best horse I have seen in my 12 years as an owner. He just floats over the ground. We knew early on he was something special that no one had ever seen before.”

After the colt started rattling off one jaw-dropping performance after another, Hronis recalled his mindset throughout, “After seeing him work long before his debut I thought, ‘Wow!’ this colt is different. John knew after he got him from April. It’s impossible to predict this type of horse at a yearling sale. You may be getting a great looking horse with fantastic bloodlines, but do you have a racehorse? It’s never a sure thing. We realize we are very blessed to have him and have our family experience such brilliance. He’s a horse of a lifetime.”

He was also a horse of a lifetime for jockey Flavien Prat, who left Saratoga on Friday to ride the colt on Saturday and was back at Saratoga on Sunday.  Before getting aboard one of his mounts on Sunday he was still all smiles from what had transpired the day before. It had been a hectic three days, but Prat said,”I’ll sleep well tonight.”

The questions now are can anyone run with Flightline?  Can anyone make him even raise a sweat? Can anyone actually beat him? Todd Pletcher still has confidence in his brilliant Whitney winner Life is Good, who was bright and alert and a bit feisty when visited at the barn on Friday. And his coat was resplendent as he awaits his final prep in the October 1 Woodward Stakes.

But how confident is Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, which co-owns the brilliant Life is Good, who has been considered one of the favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Classic all year? Walden actually put a poll on Twitter after the Pacific Classic that read: “Which race should Life is Good run in at the Breeders’ Cup – Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Breeders’ Cup (Dirt) Mile, or Breeders’ Cup Classic. He is one kind of a horse who can compete in all three. Congrats over the weekend to Flightline. What a special horse, too.”

Let’s just say prior to Saturday, the Classic was looking like a showdown between older horses Flightline and Life is Good and the leading 3-year-old Epicenter. Now Elliott Walden is polling the public where to run him. Looking at some of the comments they are all over the place, with some even suggesting the Breeders’ Cup Mile (on grass).

Scott Blasi, assistant trainer of the impressive Travers winner Epicenter, said, “Flightline may have put on one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, but Epicenter came out of his race really well and we expect him to continue to improve.”

So there are still some horsemen out there who are not ready to concede the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Flightline. But he has already toyed with the winners of the Santa Anita Handicap, Dubai World Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Carter Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Californian Stakes, San Diego Handicap, San Pasqual Stakes, Bing Crosby Stakes, Del Mar Futurity, and runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. And that’s only in five starts.

Now we sit and wait and count down to the next blast-off. As spectacular as Flightline has looked, he has one other attribute. As April Mayberry said, “He’s like Gorilla Glue; he brings people together.”

Terry Finley agreed, “He’s bought a lot of joy to a lot of people. I’m so humbled to be in a position where people you respect are making comparisons to Secretariat. It’s hard to put into words. You put so much into this game and you always ask yourself, ‘Am I ever going to get one of these?’”

The question we have to ask is not whether Flightline is one of these, but is he, as Kosta Hronis said, something we have never seen before.

Photos courtesy of West Point Thoroughbreds and New York Racing Association


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