Secretariat

Seeing Pegasus in Person

It was a longshot, but while in Kentucky a week before the Breeders’ Cup to visit breeding farms with friends we had a very slight chance of getting to see Flightline close-up, at least in the light. Read on to see if our quest proved to be a success. ~ Steve Haskin

Seeing Pegasus in Person

By Steve Haskin

This is a story spanning all of one day about my attempt to meet the horse they say can sprout wings. Unlike other people I am not here to compare Flightline to Secretariat or Man o’ War or Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s trusty steed who became one of the most famous horses in history. As Big Red’s owner Penny Chenery once said, “Each era had its great horses and we are simply privileged to have had the opportunity, past or present, to share in their greatness. They were all great.”

But the reason no comparisons of Flightline can be made with these equine immortals is because Flightline after only six starts exists alone in his own sphere. He is the stuff of dreams; that unbeatable, untouchable shining star that is beyond the reach of others, no matter how talented they appear to be. In short, we have never seen anything like him, and I am sure that Thoroughbred owners often lie in bed at night and try to picture themselves owning a horse that in the past has dwelt only in the imagination. After all, these horses are still flesh and blood and cannot be expected to decimate their foes with such total domination every time they step in the starting gate.

But Flightline couldn’t help it. He simply was born with more octane in his tank than other horses and could outdistance them race after race while barely stepping on the accelerator. A high-octane person or in this case horse is one who is “effective without wasting time or effort or expense.” Flightline, simply said, is great without even trying.

When I think of Flightline and what he has accomplished in every one of his starts, not just the Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic, two sayings come to mind as well as the lyrics from a song.

Back in the mid-18th century there was a horse who was looked upon in Great Britain with the same reverence we look upon Flightline. His name was Eclipse and the phrase that followed him wherever he went was “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.” That has been Flightline.

In the 1960s there was a song made famous by Peter, Paul, and Mary and also by Joan Baez about a fictitious horse named Stewball. When I think of one line from that song I can envision Flightline coming down the stretch in isolated splendor. “And a-way up yonder, ahead of them all, came a-prancin’ and a-dancin’ my noble Stewball.” Flightline in every race has been prancin’ and dancin’ a-way up yonder ahead of them all.

And finally there is Ernest Hemingway’s line from “For Whom the Bells Toll,” which I used once describing the scene at American Pharoah’s Belmont Stakes: “But did thee feel the earth move?” That is up to each person to decide how they felt following the Classic, but I am sure there were many like myself who could feel some sort of jolt watching Flightline draw away yet again from a field of talented, classy horses.

All this is a somewhat hyperbolic preface for the events of Saturday, October 29. But with Flightline hyperbole is more truth than embellishment.

Before we proceed let me go back to the 2021 Kentucky Derby trail and my regular text messages with Kosta Hronis, owner of the Derby favorite Rock Your World. In one of his texts, Kosta threw this often used cliché at me: “We have one in the barn that is unbelievable.” That would be the seed from which the legend would grow. Before he ever ran, Kosta said after watching him work, “Wow, this colt is different. His talent seems limitless.” Those turned out to be the most prophetic comments I have ever heard. To read about those early discovery days and the story behind Flightline you can visit my column of September 6.

But getting back to my trip and the Saturday before the Breeders’ Cup, here I was preparing to leave Connecticut for Lexington, Kentucky to visit breeding farms from October 27 to November 1 with my wife Joan and our friends Avi and Rhoda Freedberg, whose magnificent home located right on the Oklahoma training track has become our second home during the Saratoga meet for the past decade or so. The Freedbergs had bid on and won two nights in the now famous rustic “tree house” (which has been made into a B&B) on Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa Farm, known as the Biltmore of the Bluegrass where a good portion of the movie “Seabiscuit” was filmed. Among the stallions residing there are Curlin, sire of three Breeders’ Cup winners this year, and Violence and Ghostzapper, who each sired one Breeders’ Cup winner.

But in addition to visiting top stallions such as Flightline’s sire Tapit, Into Mischief, Medaglia d’Oro, American Pharoah. Justify, Uncle Mo and many others, there was a chance to finally see Flightline in person for the first time. A text from the colt’s co-owner Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds the day before we were to leave told me all I needed to know. “Steve, Flightline is working at 7:30 on Saturday.”

That was great news, but the bad part is that it doesn’t get light in Kentucky until 8 o’clock. But at least we would be able to get a glimpse of him. With my old pocket-sized Canon Sure shot camera there was no chance of getting a photo in the dark, as any slight movement would render the shot a blurry mess. With the Breeders’ Cup horses stabled who knows where behind Keeneland on Rice Road and coming on to the track by the seven-eighths pole I wouldn’t even be able to see the horse enter by the gap leading to the main stable area.

I made arrangements to meet Terry on the apron by the gap just to say hi and see how he was holding up a week before the race, and also to hopefully see some familiar faces I haven’t seen in years since my semi-retirement from Blood-Horse in 2015, although I did write for them freelance for the next five years continuing my Derby Dozen, which I now do along with the weekly Askin’ Haskin column for Secetariat.com.

We were out of the hotel before 6:30, expecting a throng of visitors to “see” Flightline and other Breeders’ Cup horses train. Sure enough they came out in number, even with small children, some of them wearing their Halloween costumes.

As I had hoped. I met several people from the “old days,” catching up on things, especially how the sport and the media have changed in recent years. At 7:30, waves of horses, many wearing Breeders’ Cup saddle towels, could be seen galloping or working through the darkness. We realized that even if we caught Flightline going by it would be a five-second blur. We did see a horse with the saddle towel number 102 signifying a Classic horse whiz by. Was that Flightline? All we saw was the light shining from the exercise rider’s helmet and a horse with four bandages striding out beautifully. By the time I raised my camera for whatever futile reason he was gone. No one else knew if that was Flightline. It didn’t really matter. It was like trying to recognize someone going by you in a speeding Amtrak express. Soon we came to the realization that the Breeders’ Cup works were over. Oh, well, at least we were in the presence of Flightline…we think.

Soon after, we saw Terry and he told us that Flightline was one of the first horses on the track and the blur we saw likely was him. We didn’t get to really see him or photograph him, but at least we had a date the following morning to visit his sire Tapit at Gainesway Farm and would be going to Ashford Stud later Saturday afternoon to see Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify. And we hadn’t even gotten to Xalapa Farm yet for our two nights there. So we put Flightline behind us and moved on knowing we at least gave it a shot.

As I spoke to Terry, he said, “Why don’t you drive out to the barn? You go out the back gate. He’s in Barn 60.” The chances of him still being out and getting his bath were practically zero. He had been back for a while and we still had to walk the length of the grandstand, get in our car and figure out where we were going. I had a rough idea where the back gate was, but finding our way past all the vans and winding roads it took up more valuable time.

We finally found the back gate but had no idea where Barn 60 was, so Avi asked every person we saw on the road. It probably didn’t matter, as none of us had Breeders’ Cup media credentials. We finally saw the small barn area and Barn 60 and Avi calmly drove in and flashed his owner’s badge and we were in. The great writer Bill Nack, who was a master at getting in places, always told me just act like you belong and avoid eye contact. There were plenty of media there waiting to talk to trainer John Sadler. As expected, Flightline was finished with his bath and back in his stall. We saw Terry and he told us they would bring him back out to wash his feet.

You mean there was still a chance we would get to see Flightline close up? Like the old days I listened to Sadler talk about the work. Thank goodness the days of shoving a tape recorder in front of a trainer’s mouth and then having to transcribe his words were over.

I heard him say that Flightline had worked five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 under assistant trainer Juan Leyva, which was exactly what Sadler was looking for. “I told Juan to go in a minute and change and out (seven-eighths) in 1:26, and that’s what he did,” Sadler said. “Juan’s a great work rider. It was not about going fast today, just getting around there happy. He’s had a good week and gotten settled in, and the track is a little similar to Del Mar. He’ll go to the track to jog Monday, gallop Tuesday through Friday and won’t go to the track the morning of the Classic.”

Sadler then went back in the barn. OK, now we wait for the horse to make another appearance. As the time went by I started getting antsy. Terry was still there being interviewed by a few reporters, but most of the media had departed by now, with only a few remaining, which was not a good sign. Soon there was hardly anyone left. Rhoda had approached someone who supposedly was close to the horse and he told her that Flightline was in for good and not coming back out. So close yet so far.

We figured we had stayed long enough and it was time to move on. Just then the doors to the barn opened and there he was in all his magnificence. No, he didn’t have wings, but Pegasus was there right before our eyes. And we had him pretty much all to ourselves. Yes, he indeed was getting his feet washed as Terry had said. As soon as he stepped out and on to the wash mat his head and his ears went up and he started looking around, either posing for the few of us that were left or wondering where everyone had gone.

Class exuded from every pore. Not once did his ears or his head go down. This was as alert a horse as I have ever seen. It was as if he was born to pose. Like the great ones, he knew he was special. After a while it seemed like my camera was shooting on its own. Now it was time to get Joan in the pictures, while Avi shot Rhoda with his phone. Still he posed. It was as close to a private photo session as you could get. We couldn’t believe our good fortune.

What seemed all morning like an unsuccessful attempt to see Flightline and get close to him had turned into an unforgettable experience, thanks in good part to Terry Finley, who I have followed through the years going back to the early days of West Point Thoroughbreds, which now occupies hallowed ground in the annals of the sport.

Flightline returned to the barn and we finally left, with all of us beaming inside and out at the unforeseen turn of events. The rest of our trip was memorable as well spending the following morning alone with Tapit for a good half hour and the recently pensioned Afleet Alex, then going to Ashford Stud and historic Airdrie Stud, and then the following day to see Curlin and company at Xalapa, and finally Lane’s End Farm, future home of Flightline, to see Quality Road, one of my favorites, and Candy Ride, the sire of Avi and Rhoda’s Westchester Stakes winner Nicodemus.

While at Lane’s End, although not a word was said, we all got the feeling they were about ready to roll out the red carpet. You could feel it and you could see it in their faces. There was no doubt in our mind that Flightline was going to be retired…and quickly. The day after the Classic the announcement was made. We had the narrowest of windows and the slimmest of chances to see Flightline up close and personal as a racehorse and we somehow managed to do it.

Even with all the great stallions we saw we will never forget our morning at Barn 60 getting to see Flightline, who one week later would once again be dancin’ and a-prancin’ a-way out yonder ahead of them all, finishing first with the rest nowhere. But most important, we like most everyone felt the earth move.

Photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire and Steve Haskin

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 Secretariat.com since 2020.


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198 Responses to “Seeing Pegasus in Person”

  1. Davids says:

    Steve, have you read Timeform’s article “ Flightline: The Timeform Verdict – Big Red Still Top Of The Tree”? You are in good form as usual.

  2. Pebbles says:

    Hi Steve,

    I greatly respect your perspective given your excellent knowledge of racing history, Pedigree and ability to assess well visually.

    I must preface my comments by stating any perceived criticism is of the connections and their campaign and not of the horse.

    To me there are several elements that measure thoroughbred race horde greatness.

    Durability. This means not just showing up for races, but demonstrating championship level form over multiple year campaigns and running back in a reasonable amount of time. 3 to 6 months I do not see as a reasonable amount of time. 9 weeks is certainly more reasonable. Certainly a three race campaign raises questions if one seeks ti be considered for Horse of the Year. During the Eclipse Era there has never been a Horse of the Year with so slim a campaign. Flightline was healthy between June 11th and September 5th. Why didn’t he run in the Whitney Stakes which would have actually given him a test at the Graveyard of Champions? Failure to do this really muddied his campaign because there were no excuses for ducking Saratoga.

    Competition. Flightline cannot be blamed for the competition he faced to the extent he announced his schedule in advance. However, he can be blamed when he announces two potential races and ducks the race with the tougher field which he did with the Whitney Stakes.

    Also, unlike a horse like Arrogate who faced two future Hall of Famers in California Chrome and Gun Runner, both of whom ran faster than any competition Flightline faced, Flightline never faced horses so good and it is because he ducked the competition.

    Speed. I will grant you Flightline is a talented fast horse. He is the speed figure horse. But he never set track records. Stakes records. World records. His Breeders Cup Classic was a lower BSF than Ghostzapper and Ghostzapper ran three of his races faster BSF wise in his championship year while facing a tougher field. 128, 124, 114 while Flightline was 126, 121, 112.

    Accomplishments. He won but 4 graded stakes races. Justify’s Triple Crown was more impressive. Arrogate’s 4 wins were more impressive.

    Adversity- great horses overcome Adversity. Flightline never faced because his connections never challenged him. Had he entered the Whitney Stakes he could have run on a good, not fast track. He never ran on an off track like Justify or against a field of more than 7 other horses.

    For me Flightline had a chance to be one of the greatest ever, but I would not place him better than 4th this century. American Pharoah, Ghostzapper and Justify were better.

    Looking forward to your historical comparison.

    • Davids says:

      Reading the highly respected and historically accurate Timeform’s article “ Flightline: The Timeform Verdict – Big Red Still Top Of The Tree” may give you a more objective perspective on the actual rating of the greatest ever. We all have our favorites but that’s a subjective opinion.

  3. Davids says:

    Lynda, did you notice that Tapit’s son Cupid had the largest rise in mares bred from 2021 total to 2022 total. Cupid had 77 mares bred in 2021 to a whopping increase of 174. Moreover, Tacitus, the son of Tapit I’m really hoping will succeed, had 188 mares bred in 2022 which is extremely positive so far.

    Greatest Honour is another Tapit son I hope makes his mark. Both Tacitus and Greatest Honour come from the worldwide successful family of Best in Show.

  4. Davids says:

    Flightline to make an early presence in Japan. Shamrock Rose purchased by Japan’s KI Farm for $3 million at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale is to be bred to Flightline before she is shipped to Japan.