A Terrific Trio of Finalists for 2022 Vox Populi Award

Secretariat Vox Populi Award voters have three distinct paths to take in determining this year’s most popular horse and can make a compelling case for each one. The three finalists all have extraordinary stories, both on and off the track, and it is up to the voters to decide which one affected them the most. ~ Steve Haskin

A Terrific Trio of Finalists for 2022 Vox Populi Award

By Steve Haskin

Despite the limited number of horses on the ballot, this year’s Secretariat Vox Populi Award finalists give the voters a chance to decide just what their criteria is in determining the sport’s most popular horse.

Although the nine-person selection committee listed a number of horses in their top four, many of them certain Eclipse Award winners, of the three who received enough votes to be placed on the ballot, two have little or no chance of being named champion in their division. As Penny Chenery had intended when she started the award in 2011, that puts the emphasis on popularity more than just accomplishments.

Here is a rundown of the three finalists, with voters having the option to write in their own selection.

FLIGHTLINE – How can a horse be considered the most popular in the country when he ran only three times in 2022 and didn’t make his first start of the year until early June, with gaps of 5 ½ months, three months, and two months between races? That normally spells out of sight, out of mind. But there was nothing normal about Flightline, who despite his extremely limited campaign was never out of mind.

Because of his unprecedented domination over his opponents in every one of his six career starts and the mystique that followed him from Santa Anita to Belmont Park, to Del Mar, and finally to Keeneland and his unique ability to decimate his rivals from six furlongs to a mile and a quarter, his popularity never waned during his time between races. Never before had racing fans seen a horse win every race by such huge margins and in near-record times while doing it mostly under wraps in the stretch. But by keeping such a low profile and making himself so scarce to the public, how does that translate to popularity over the course of an entire year?

We have to go back to the word mystique, because no one had ever seen anything like him, and when he wasn’t racing there was the memory of his most recent annihilation and the anticipation of his next start, wondering what new amazing feats we were about to witness. And in each one of those starts he would be venturing into uncharted territory, attempting to do something horses simply don’t do.

Horses with only three sprint races in their career do not win the grueling Met Mile, which tests one’s speed, class, stamina, and toughness, in their first start of the year and win by six lengths despite breaking poorly and having to steady twice. Horses who have never run two turns and with only four career starts do not beat a field of Grade 1 and Grade 2 winners by 19 ¼ lengths going a mile and quarter in near-record time and winning eased up the length of the stretch. And horses with only five career starts do not make their second cross-country trip, running at their fourth different track in their last four starts, and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic defeating the best 3-year-olds and older horses in the country by 8 ½ lengths, despite stalking a brutally fast pace that took its toll on the pacesetting Life is Good, who would have been the ovewhelming favorite for Horse of the Year if not for the presence of Flghtline.

Yes, he raced only three times and had long intervals between races, but he was so unlike anything the racing world had ever seen he had become a horse that lived in our imagination even more than on the racetrack. It is rare to have imagination and reality become one, but Flightline was able to achieve that.

With each mind-boggling performance his balloon grew larger and larger and we began wondering if that next inflation would finally cause it to burst. But amazingly it never did. Many were disappointed when it was announced the day following his Breeders’ Cup Classic tour-de-force that he would be retired. But with him already being four years old, having likely reached his peak physically and mentally, and being worth a king’s ransom, his owners couldn’t afford to keep inflating that balloon, knowing that if it did burst for whatever reason the sound would be deafening and the entire sport and its fans would be deflated as well. Many of those fans deep down wanted the fascination surrounding the horse to never end so they could tell their children and grandchildren about that “winged” horse who for a short period of time did things not even the greats were able to do.

And so we now can continue to ask ourselves if he indeed was the fleetest, most exceptional horse in modern history. He will never replace legendary equine heroes like Secretariat and Man o’ War, who transcended the Sport of Kings, but you can be sure that people will always wonder if Flightline would have beaten them and there lies the mystique that will follow him throughout the years.

CODY’S WISH – We’ve learned how a horse can be popular despite rarely being seen on the racetrack. Now in the case of Cody’s Wish we see how popularity is attained through a single story rather than through a fan base over a period of time. In fact, not many people knew much about Cody’s Wish despite the colt rattling off six wins in seven starts beginning in maiden and allowance races and then winning a pair of Grade 3 stakes and a listed race.

When he moved up to Grade 1 company in the seven-furlong Forego Stakes at Saratoga and defeated the defending Sprint champion Jackie’s Warrior, the story behind the colt and his name began to leak out. But it wasn’t until the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile that the story was told in depth by NBC and hit an emotional chord with the millions watching on TV. It was a gut-wrenching and heartwarming story of how a horse could change the life of a 16-year-old boy afflicted with a rare genetic disorder at birth that affected his entire body. It was four years ago, through Keeneland’s Make-A-Wish program, that Cody Dorman, wanting to meet a racehorse, was taken to Godolphin’s Gainsborough Farm near Midway, Kentucky where Cody met and fell in love with a six-month-old weanling colt by Curlin, who came up to him and put his nose in the boy’s lap.

Godolphin later named the colt Cody’s Wish. Over the next few years, Cody Dorman overcame several medical crises, fighting to stay alive, and it was decided to bring him to the track and reunite him with his namesake. As soon as Cody saw the colt come over to him he let out with a big belly laugh, something he normally never did. Cody felt as if his friend had found him.

When Cody’s Wish lost his first three races, Cody, although unable to speak, was able to communicate with his parents that it was because he was not at the track to see him. From that day on, Cody attended his races and his 4-year-old namesake won his next three starts. By the time of the Breeders’ Cup the colt had won six of his seven races, including the Forego at Saratoga, with his only loss a tough neck defeat in the Grade 3 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

Anyone who watched NBC’s feature prior to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and saw Cody’s Wish outduel the multiple Grade 1-winning 3-year-old Cyberknife with Cody Dorman’s entire family cheering him on near the rail had to be moved, many to tears.

So in the matter of the Vox Populi Award, do you vote with your heart after being touched by this remarkable story that did not come to light until November or do you go with a horse that connected with the public over most of the year? That is why this award is different from all other awards. It was meant to pay tribute to the most popular horse, but people have the choice of interpreting it any way they wish, even if that popularity is through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy who found a special friend and was able to share him and their story of courage on racing’s biggest day.

RICH STRIKE – You have read about two types of possible Vox Populi Award winners, and with Rich Strike you have a horse who is somewhere in between. He has a terrific back story filled with tragedy, perseverance, and family bonding and because of his shocking victory in the Kentucky Derby at odds of 80-1 he entered the public’s consciousness.

Although he hasn’t won since, he did enough to convince skeptics that the Derby victory was not the fluke most thought it was. In fact, if it wasn’t for one of the most bizarre and egregious rides by Sonny Leon, the jockey who gave him such a brilliant ride at Churchill Downs, he most likely would have defeated last year’s Vox Populi winner Hot Rod Charlie in the Grade 2 Lukas Classic, giving him a major victory over older horses.

As it is he still managed to finish a solid fourth in the Travers Stakes off a 2 ½-month layoff, beaten a nose and a neck for second, and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race in which he appeared to be overmatched and could have easily passed to point for the Clark Handicap. But his connections showed the kind of sportsmanship that racing fans admire. With those two fourth-place finishes he increased his 2022 earnings to over $2.1 million. Not bad for a horse who was claimed for $30,000.

What looked to be one of the most unlikely and unsatisfactory Kentucky Derby results in memory, right up there with Mine That Bird, whose story became a full-length motion picture, turned out to be one of the most inspiring stories in years, with his trainer Eric Reed having lost 23 horses in a barn fire in 2017 that nearly put him out of business, then losing his top two assistants to cancer a month apart in 2020 and his 2-year-old grandson in a tragic accident shortly after, followed by the death of his wife’s parents. But through all the heartbreak the family bonded together and kept forging ahead looking for that one big horse. Amazingly they found him in a claiming race after Reed had unsuccessfully tried to claim another horse who had eight other claims in on him. So he decided to put in a claim on a Keen Ice colt running later in the card. Because Rich Strike had run so poorly in his only start, finishing 10th  and last in a maiden turf race at Ellis Park, there were no other claims for him. Reed then watched the colt win that day by a mind-boggling 17 ¼ lengths.

Rich Strike would go on to place in a couple of stakes on the all-weather track at Turfway Park. Although no one paid any attention, Reed had so much confidence in the colt he pointed him to the Kentucky Derby, which seemed like folly at the time, especially considering the colt, with so few points, had little chance to get in the Derby field. But the Derby gods no doubt were at work as Rich Strike made it into the field the day before the race after the late scratch of the Wayne Lukas-trained Ethereal Road. The history books were now open and Rich Strike would go on to write his own chapter with one of the most dramatic runs ever seen in the Derby, leaving the racing world in a state of shock, as most people had no idea who this horse was.

From that day on the public continued to follow Rich Strike to see if his story would continue. Time will tell, but Rich Strike has established himself as a top-class colt who most likely will continue racing next year and at an even higher level with the way he has been progressing. With the departure of so many of this year’s major stars, racing fans still have the Kentucky Derby winner to look forward to, giving them hope that in a world made up of mostly unfinished stories fairy tales can endure.


Photos courtesy of Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire, NBC Sports and Pat McDonogh/Courier Journal

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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