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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67 Responses to “A Terrific Trio of Finalists for 2022 Vox Populi Award”

  1. Delrene Sims says:

    Thanks for giving us all the more background on these three horses. All deserving……. I do not disagree with any three, but wish there was a 4th and a 5th. Lava Man and Tyler’s Tribute. Would be in the running as well.
    So…… first time ever I did a write in. Vote everyone. Vote for your favorite. This is such a beautiful award Mrs. Chenery opened up to the public to vote for the horse that really inspired and elevated horseracing.
    Thanks again Steve.

  2. Kyri Freeman says:

    Cody’s Wish. The combination of a top-quality racehorse and the story with Cody the human, make him the winner to me.

    Jackie’s Warrior was very popular with a lot of fans, and Malathaat was beloved by many, but to me Cody is the one of the listed three who is most deserving.

  3. KelsoFan says:

    Rich Strike for me. I watched the Kentucky Derby with a dear friend, a classical musician (symphony conductor)who had never watched a horse race and was thrilled to see him become a fan from that one amazing race. Any one of the three candidates would be a worthwhile winner in my humble opinion.

  4. Discopartner says:

    Epicenter. Did the most all year and recovered from what would be a devastating injury in the biggest race that denied him the chance to prove his stature as a 3 yo.

    • Discopartner says:

      Maybe it’s not a good idea to emphasize a racing injury though, which thankfully Epicenter is recovering from so far.

      The story of Cody’s Wish is the epitomy of what the award is about, the miraculous connection between Cody and Cody’s Wish, who seemed to win for him. Even in a year with two other nominees having miraculous careers or wins. My vote will be for Cody’s Wish.

  5. Paddy Head says:

    I would be more inclined to vote for horses who have been around and leave it out there on the track every time, horses like Hot Rod Charlie and Jackie’s Warrior.

  6. Matthew W says:

    I became immersed into the sport in 1972, where I got to see Cougar II in the flesh, and lived thru Secretariat…..saw Affirmed many times, and at age 21 saw Spectacular Bid set the still standing world record, in the 1980 Strub.. saw Flightline in the Malibu and Pacific Classic up close, I got close to the gate and was nearly alone at top of stretch, I’m lucky. .Dec 11th Champion if Champions, for Quarter Horses at Los Alamitos…50th running….has four future Hall of Famers, the greatest North American horse race has perhaps its greatest ever field. .

  7. Jiffy says:

    I’d make Cody’s Wish an odds-on favorite to win, but I’d vote for Flightline.

    • Matthew W says:

      Perfectly said I agree also….I went out of my way to see Flightline work and race. ..I also agree with Discopartner, Epicenter likely finishes close to Flightline in the Classic, and had a great overall year—he did not defeat older horses but he would have…probably also would have raced at four, being by an unproven (yet) sire. .

  8. Tim Stafford says:

    Great read Steve, certainly gives us food for thought. Quick question, can a filly or mare win this award or is it only male horses.
    Nevertheless, I enjoyed this read very much.

    BTW, out of curiosity where has Eddie been. I have not seen him on these blogs for several months.

    Thanks & Happy Thanksgiving


    Three wonderful and deserving choices, so it will be difficult to select, and voting may be close. Flightline certainly has excited horse racing fans. His stunning victories have had many who have compared him to Secretariat. On the other hand, what is not to love about Cody’s Wish and Rich Strike. Cody’s Wish sentimental story truly tugs at the heart strings while the blue-collar Rich Strike exemplifies every small-time trainer’s dream. Both are Hollywood script worthy! I have a tough decision ahead!

  10. Laurie says:

    My thoughts, Flightline is without a doubt the fastest we have seen in recent history, I struggle with the fact that they had trouble keeping him on the track. He will have to prove himself to me as a stallion as Justify has done.

    Rich Strike is a feel good horse for the long shot win in the derby. What has soured me is the owners not the horse.
    This continued battle over the Lukas Classic is getting tiring.

    I’ve been following Cody’s Wish since I first heard his story on America’s Day at the races and have followed him and his story since. Cody was introduced to the foal at 6 mos, then again at 2 1/2 ish and then a meeting during the Breeders Cup meet. Besides the fact that he is a very good racehorse, he’s intelligent enough to recognize a child in need and behave like a gentleman and with caring. Totally admire Calumet for making a dream come true.

    • Todd Vaughn says:

      I agree with each of your assessments. While none of the choices is completely satisfying,, Cody’s Wish brings no negatives. If i were to vote for any, it would be him.

  11. Sue says:

    I would have to go with Cody’s Wish, as that is the story that warms my heart. Flightline as runner-up (but only here)

  12. Lise says:

    Cody’s Wish for me!

  13. Davids says:

    “Thou thy worldly task hast done,
    Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
    Golden lads and girls all must,
    As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”

    As everyone here and now will, eventually vanish, there is one thing that won’t: “Flightline’s record.” Arguably, the best racehorse ever.

  14. Terri Z says:

    With so many horses retired this year after the Breeders Cup, one horse you can count on seeing on the track is Channel Maker. The horse and all of his connections are deserving of the Vox Populi. I like the progeny of English Channel and I enjoy seeing them on the track. Kudos to his owners and trainer to keeping this hard trying boy on the track.

  15. Sue Sefscik says:

    Rich Strike, hope springs eternal!

  16. Sean Collins says:

    I’m sure the voting will be close, but this award should without a doubt go to Rich Strike. The only one worthy in my opinion. The impact he made on the general public, the non-racing fan, was remarkable. I still hear non racing fans discussing how amazing his race was. He is the only one that has made a lasting impact on the mind’s of the non-racing fans this year.

    • Matthew W says:

      Flightline won the Met Mile off of a 6 month layoff, he won his first two turn race by nearly 20 lengths he did things that aren’t done—-Rich Strike came from last to first, in the Derby, after the fastest pace ever, in the race—that’s how and why he won… was believable, (bately)….Flightline defied believability….

  17. Matthew W says:

    Was Gander that big gray deep closer that sometimes got in the pucture? Did he ever win the award?

  18. Matthew W says:

    I thought Lava Man would be a great winner, but those three are all terrific!

  19. 1JoeP says:

    As brilliant as Flightline was I would give the award to Cody’s Wish. The BC Dirt Mile Winner has stamped himself as a special horse on and off the track. His special connection with the 16 yr. Old boy Cody is surely a blessing. Seeing the boy with tears streaming down his eyes after his favorite horse won a BC race brought me to tears. This magnificent connection between the horse and the boy is why I would give Cody’s wish the award.

  20. Jo Anne says:

    Channel Maker it is.

  21. Gary says:

    Hi Steve,
    Maybe you are aware that GP has cancelled the quinella bet. HRN has a small article on it.
    I went to the link to read about the whole matter and I have to say that I had to scratch my head with the details of how the bets can be manipulated.
    When you gat a chance please visit the original link and try to explain to us in the easiest terms as what went on there.
    You can skip the HRN article and go directly to that link.


    Please replace the “DOT” with a “.”.

    • TommyMc says:

      I’ll take a shot. Years ago, in the days before the Las Vegas Casinos were tapped into the racetrack pools, the race-books in Las Vegas and Reno took bets on races around the country and paid off at full track odds up to 500-1(if I remember correctly). Those bets didn’t go into the pari-mutuel pools at the tracks. The race-books were stand alone “bookies”. There were several scandals in the early 80s that involved smaller tracks which had smaller pools. Both Thoroughbred and Standard-bred races. I distinctly remember one that involved one of the Louisiana tracks(the Patin gang?). Anyway, here’s how the scam worked. Someone on site at the track would bet a fairly large amount of money on a horse that had no chance of winning the race(either bad form or inside information) which often made a 20-1 shot the actual favorite in the race. More importantly, this caused the prices on the horse that they fancied to rise dramatically. Meanwhile, in Nevada, the partner in crime would bet a similar amount of money on the preferred horse and cash tickets at 10-1 on a horse that would have been odds-on if the pool on-track had not been manipulated. $10,000 lost on track, but $10,000 paid off at 10-1 in the racebooks of Nevada. Obviously, Casino operators are no dummies. There was at least one instance where they wouldn’t pay off on such bets with the manipulated pools. It went to court. I don’t remember how it turned out. But, it led to the Casino race-books co-mingling their pools with the on-track pari-mutuel pools. Less profits for the Casinos, but less vulnerability to scams.

      • Davids says:

        Tommy you would probably enjoy reading about the “Yellow Sam Betting Coup” just search the title. Even better, it’s on YouTube. Barney Curley was a real character in UK/Irish racing.

      • Gary says:

        Thanks, I knew that part.
        But in this case, the link has so much info that its easy to get lost in keeping track as to exactly what happened. This involves offshore wagering.
        I found another one “True Crime in Horse Racing: The Real Peaky Blinders” thats from the twinspire site

        • Davids says:

          Have you watched the BBC series “Peaky Blinders,” excellent show although extremely violent at times, the razor blades were pretty gruesome.

          Do you know about the infamous Australian “Fine Cotton Affair” scandal? Too incredible to believe, considering the people involved.

  22. TommyMc says:

    I’m surprised that one of the Distaffers is not on the ballot: Malathaat, Clairiere, or Nest. Voters can write in a different choice if they want. I went ahead and punched in a vote for Cody’s Wish. Great story and I cashed a real nice bet on him the day that he beat Jackie’s Warrior at Saratoga. No, I didn’t bet him back in the Breeders Cup. One of several mistakes that I made over the two days. While it was fun to watch Flightline run, he was always “unbettable”. So, I never cashed any kind of a ticket on him. Steve Haskin makes a good case for Rich Strike, and I think he’s a good horse, but I never really warmed up to him. Jockey Sonny Leon certainly didn’t do Rich Strike any favors with his bizarre ride in the Lukas Classic. I agree with Steve Haskin that Rich Strike would probably have won that day if not for the jockey’s selfish vendetta or whatever it was that made him act that way. “Saddle slipped.” I’ve watched that race several times. I don’t think so.
    In a sport that is predicated on Pari-Mutuel wagering, why shouldn’t I make my choice based on which horse I cashed on? Maybe I should have written in the name of Mark Casse’s Wonder Wheel. My lone bright spot in this year’s Breeders Cup.

  23. Gilda Libero says:

    Steve, Wrote in Channel Maker over Cody’s Wish. Cody is a heart warming story and a wonderful horse. Channel Maker defies a ton of odds in addition to being a wonderful horse. For the Rodney Dangerfield’s of this world who defy the odds Rock on Channel Maker!!

    • Steve Haskin says:

      I was hoping he would be on the ballot and he cetainly is worthy of a write-in vote for what he repesents in a sport where fans rarely get to know the stars.

      • Terri Z says:

        Thanks for the recommendation Steve Haskin. I am hoping to see him in the Pegasus on the turf.
        I love the Pegasus World Cup as it is like a handicapping convention; all of the best older horses are in the races and the undercard.
        It’s sad that so many of the horses in the Breeders Cup this year were retired prior to the Pegasus World Cup. Those who are sound certainly could have waited to retire in February when the Thoroughbred Breeding begins.

    • TommyMc says:

      I like your thinking with “Channel Maker”. He’s keeps on truckin’ at 8-years old. He still competes in Graded Stakes races. In fact, he won a Grade 2 earlier in the year. In a sport where all the Stars disappear after 5 or 10 races, Channel Maker shows up all the time and always gives his best. Good choice. I wish that I would have thought of him.

  24. Lynda King says:

    “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt by the heart”
    Helen Keller.

    I have to go with my heart and cast my vote foe Cody’s Wish.

    • Davids says:

      Lynda, Army Mule is represented by stakes winner No. 4 with Navy Goat. An expensive filly, OBSAPR’22 at $450,000, for an Army Mule.

  25. Ms Blacktype says:

    Steve, you’ve made such great cases for each horse on the shortlist I’m not sure I can pick just one. I’m going to give this some thought before I make my choice. Thanks for another great read!