Life is Good, But Good Enough to Beat Flightline?

Many people are wondering what Flightline’s margin of victory will be in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Very few are wondering who can beat him. But are most people underestimating Life is Good? That’s what we’re about to determine. ~ Steve Haskin

Life is Good, But Good Enough to Beat Flightline?

By Steve Haskin


Life is Good finished fourth in his only start at a mile and a quarter. He was only workmanlike to beat a small subpar Woodward field by 1 1/4 lengths in his last start at odds of 1-20. His highest Thoro-Graph number by far has come at seven furlongs. His fastest two-turn Thoro-Graph number in a two-turn race is six points, or the equivalent of 12 lengths, slower than Flightline’s fastest number. His total margin of victory in his last five wins is 17 ¼ lengths; Flightline’s total margin of victory in his last five wins in 62 ¾ lengths.

So, how in the world is Life is Good expected to beat Flightline in the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic? How is a horse who narrowly defeated Law Professor, beaten almost 30 lengths in his last two graded stakes, going to now defeat a horse people are calling a freak and the next superstar? Why is the Classic being billed as a showdown between the two top older horses in America when one seems far superior visually and in every statistical category?

Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of horse racing where anything is possible and not everything is as clear and cut and dry as it seems. It has to be that way or else longshot bettors would go broke in a month. The late Allen Jerkens made a Hall of Fame career out of knocking off sure things, often with former claimers and rejects. And in our two most prestigious races, the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, the names Arcangues, Volponi, Wild Again, Mine That Bird, Giacomo, and Rich Strike would mean nothing if races were a foregone conclusion.

Not that Life is Good can be compared to those megabombs. After all, in any other year he would the solid favorite for the Classic; the horse whose brilliant speed would make him the horse to catch and certainly the horse to beat. So, why paint such a bleak picture in the opening paragraph? Because this isn’t any other year; this is the year of Flightline, a horse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before at this stage of his career.

So, now let’s return to the second paragraph and the gist of this column. How can Life is Good, with his impressive nine-for-10 record in the United States, his $4.3 million in earnings, and his four Grade 1 victories beat a horse who is so much faster, so much more dominating, and so much more explosive than he is?

There are several ways of going into battle against such an overwhelming opponent. You can be David against Goliath and do something so unconventional it catches the far superior foe off guard. You can be the unheralded Buster Douglas, who went into the ring with the fearsome, intimidating, and seemingly invincible Mike Tyson and showed no fear, going for the knockout and again catching the bully off guard. And then of course, you can be Michael Spinks, who went into the ring with Tyson with so much fear you knew the fight was over before it started and that a first-round knockout was a sure thing. Many of Flightline’s opponents will go in the race praying for a miracle, but realistically hoping for second.

You can forget that last scenario with Life is Good. His trainer Todd Pletcher fears no one and will instill plenty of confidence in his colt and just has to figure out whether to utilize the David or the Buster Douglas strategy. As Tyson used to say, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So will Life is Good use the surprise approach and do something he’s not supposed to do or does he stand up to Flightline? Douglas got knocked down, but kept getting up and exchanging blows until he destroyed his opponent’s will. The result was a shocking knockout.

Both of those strategies are easier said than done, but Pletcher is a great tactician and will have a plan of attack. He is well aware of Life is Good’s main weapon, which is speed. Before we get into what those plans may be, let’s look back at Life is Good’s so-called disappointing effort in the Woodward that national TV commentators said was unimpressive.

Pletcher has never been one to unload in prep races and you don’t want to see a horse with exceptional speed who is still a question mark at a mile and a quarter use his biggest weapon against inferior competition when he is going to have to come out with guns blazing against Flightline, as well as Epicenter, Taiba, Olympiad, and possibly several others. If you follow Thoro-Graph or Ragozin the thinking is you don’t want to run some extraordinary number before the biggest race of the year and then have nowhere to go but down. So while Life is Good has a ton of catching up to do before he gets anywhere near Flightline’s numbers he at least has given himself a big shot at an upward move. And he’ll need it. Yes, Flightline’s last Thoro-Graph number of negative-8 ½ in the Pacific Classic is the fastest number ever recorded, but he has been given a lot of time between races to recover from that performance. All Life is Good can hope for is a huge move forward and for Flightline to take a major step backwards. There is such a big gap between the two even that might not be enough, but at least has put himself in a position to take advantage of any significant regression by Flightline.

As for the Woodward, let’s just say that Law Professor ran out of his skin, as evidenced by the 10 ½-length gap back to the third horse and the fact that Life is Good had to come home his final three-eighths running on a heavy wet track for the first time in a swift :36 1/5 and final eighth in :12 1/5. You can’t close much faster than that, especially setting all the pace.

So, now he has to go up against Flightline. The last time Life is Good was in a similar showdown was in this year’s Pegasus World Cup when he squared off against the brilliant Horse of the Year Knicks Go, who had decimated his opponents with his early speed. In his previous eight victories he won them all on the lead by an average margin of almost five lengths and defeated the best horses in the country in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. No horse could stay with him early and he went out there controlled the pace each time. But Life is Good possesses such brilliant sprint speed he took it to Knicks Go right from the start. He burst out of the gate, quickly opened a two and then three-length lead in a stiff :46 1/5 and 1:10, and Knicks Go never knew what hit him. He never got close to Life is Good and was beaten 3 ¼ lengths.

What helped Life is Good was not only his natural speed, but the ability to turn it on or off. In the seven-furlong Allen Jerkens Stakes he outran Sprint champion Jackie’s Warrior early off an almost six-month layoff, blazing though fractions of :21 4/5 and :44 flat. In the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile he went in :44 4/5 and 1:08 3/5. That is the only kind of speed that could bring down a horse like Knicks Go and perhaps a horse like Flightline, who has had the luxury of strolling down the stretch in isolated splendor every race. He has no idea what competition looks like once he turns for home. Life is Good’s objective must be to stay with him long enough to look him in the eye down the stretch.

This year Pletcher has been focusing more on having him relax early, knowing he is going to have to go a mile and a quarter. Some of the experts have felt Pletcher has been dulling his main weapon, but it was only three races back in the seven-furlong John Nerud Stakes that Life is Good tore through fractions off :22 and :44 3/5 and drew of to a five-length win in 1:21 3/5. He has already proven he can pull out that hole card anytime he wants. So don’t’ go by his workmanlike victories in the Whitney and Woodward on off tracks. That sprint speed is there whenever Pletcher and jockey Irad Ortiz feel it’s needed. The question is how far can he carry it with Flightline in hot pursuit? Remember, Flightline has won his last two races sitting just off the leader so I wouldn’t expect some torrid speed duel up front.

No, I am not ignoring the other Classic contenders. Epicenter has improved in leaps and bounds and now possesses a lethal closing kick he didn’t show earlier in the year, but his fastest Thoro-Graph number is a negative-1, as is Taiba’s, both in their last start, so it appears at least on the speed sheets that they are not nearly fast enough at this point in their career to beat Flightline and Life is Good. The lightly raced Taiba still has tremendous scope for improvement, and hopefully we will see a major star emerge next year. Olympiad and Hot Rod Charlie are in the same ballpark speed-wise as Life is Good, but I just don’t think they are as talented and would need a pace meltdown to have any chance. The fastest 3-year-old with the exception of Charge It’s negative-4 in his 23-length romp in the Dwyer Stakes actually is Rich Strike with a negative-2 in the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs against Hot Rod Charlie and other top-class older horses, but as this point it would seem more logical to wait for the Clark Handicap at his favorite track.

So, now we return to the original premise of this column. Can Life is Good beat Flightline in the Classic? I’ll let you know at the quarter pole.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association: Janet Garaguso, Dom Napolitano

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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