hy-per-bo-le (noun) exaggerated statements or claims
Driving into this New York borough, the familiar green road sign overhead reads: “Welcome to Brooklyn…Believe The Hype!”
Hype is not limited to a hipster neighborhood of New York City formerly known derisively as a “bridge-and-tunnel” locale. It’s become so commonplace in our digitally dominated communications sphere that we even have a term for it: “Buzz,” often generated by “Clickbait” headlines and stories.
Thoroughbred racing is a sport still dominated by tradition and loathe to embrace modernity. But timely buzz caught up with timeless tradition Sept. 3 at Del Mar Racecourse in decibels that haven’t gripped the sport at least since 2015 for many, when American Pharoah erased a 37-year-long drought between Triple Crowns.
That social media-era feat was even captured on the cover of the Jun. 16, 2015 Sports Illustrated as he crossed the finish line in the Belmont Stakes.
AP went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland and earn the mantle of racing immortality. He wore that mantle alone in recent memory until fans of racing’s newest superstar reached further back in time to the near-sacrosanct year, 1973—the year of Secretariat—for comparison.
Flightline walked onto the dirt track at Del Mar as the opening 1-5 prohibitive favorite in last Saturday’s Pacific Classic (G1) burdened with a lot of buzz, but a few remaining questions.
The four-year-old had raced only four times, said critics. He was slowed by minor injuries with races deliberately spaced by trainer John Sadler to ensure his best performance, said proponents.
His competition was not at the same level as the best three-year old and older horses racing now, came another challenge. He won all four by combined margins of 62 3/4 lengths—nearly two 100-yard football fields!—demonstrating formidable speed and bettering his previous effort each time, came the reply.
Then the question for which there was not yet a response. He never raced beyond one mile: Could he maintain speed and determination over the classic 1 1/4-mile distance around two turns on dirt?
Flightline: Hype or history?
The son of Tapit, bred by Jane Lyon out of her Summer Wind Farm broodmare Feathered in Georgetown KY, walked off the track and into the winners circle at Del Mar with only one remaining question: Whatever can he possibly do to surpass this performance?
It seemed an ordinary race at the start, six graded-stakes winners, including reigning Dubai World Cup (G1) victor Country Grammer, leaving without issue in a light draping of Pacific Ocean afternoon fog.
Extra Hope, much needed as it turned out, took an early lead from his rail position yielding it to Flightline around the first turn. Then…
…in the backstretch, the race became anything but ordinary. Jockey Flavien Prat gave up his hold on the reins and Flightline chose to take off in a race against only himself.
“I didn’t expect him to move like that without my really asking,” Prat would later explain. “I didn’t know a horse could do that. It was jaw dropping.”
He gained three, 10, 15 and more lengths around the second turn as the distance between Flightline and the remaining horses grew longer, the distance between Flightline and immortality shorter with each stride—a Concorde jet soaring beyond five prop-driven planes.
“Take a good look at this, you’re not going to see this too often, maybe never again!” Del Mar track announcer Trevor Denman urged as Flightline became the focus of all in attendance and the only horse streaming viewers could see on their screens.
At the sixteenth pole, Prat looked over his shoulder to eye his closest competitor. Country Grammar was at least 20 lengths arrears.
Prat eased his horse into a canter and crossed the finish line in 1:59.28, a mere .17 seconds off a track record he easily would have broken at full speed. Flightline landed officially 19 3/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Country Grammer, whose own finish rivaled his Dubai World Cup winning time.
Trainer Bob Baffert would later comment “I think [Country Grammar] thought he had won,” so far Flightline had distanced himself from his nearest competitor.
The Del Mar track record was set by Candy Ride and jockey Julie Krone in their Aug. 24, 2003 Pacific Classic victory over Medaglia d’Oro. That Argentine-bred also was lightly raced, retiring undefeated after six runs. He is a perennially leading sire currently standing at Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, KY.
Flightline will join his sire in stud at Lane’s end at the conclusion of his racing career, where he will be owned by a syndicate.
The most amazing thing about his Pacific Classic performance was it seemed so…effortless. Flightline was still full of energy after his stunning display of natural talent, enough of the ham in him to give a long look over at the grandstand spectators as if to say: “See what I just did?”
What he did was earn the highest Thoro-Graph speed figure ever posted in the 35 years those graph numbers have been analyzed.
What he did was post a Beyer speed figure of 126, second only in history to Ghostzapper’s 128 in his 2004 Iselin Handicap blur at Monmouth.
His human competitors took notice, too.
“Wow, what can you say? We were in another race and I was trying to win it,” said Country Grammer rider John Velazquez, respect tinged with a touch of humor-cum-reality.
Velazquez’s post-race calm reflected the pre-race instructions he received from Baffert, trainer of six Pacific Classic winners.
“I told Johnny, don’t chase that horse,” explained Baffert, conceding he was probably racing for second place. “If you chase him, you won’t get anything. I wanted to run at least second to him. I knew my horse was going to show up, he was doing well, he didn’t chase [Flightline] and just got beat by a brilliant horse.”
“What can you say about the winner?” echoed Mike Smith on third-place Royal Ship. “He was gone and I was just trying my best for second. That’s all you can do in a race like this.”
Flightline’s trainer seemed unfazed.
“Did I think he could do that…win like that? Kinda, yeah,” Sadler said with the verbal equivalent of a yawn. “You don’t want to say it in front of the race, but now that he’s done it….
“Distance was a question today and he answered the question.”
Following the victory, the Internet hype machine went full buzzy with nary a cautionary comment on any racing site. That hype can be summed up in one phrase: “…not since Secretariat….”
That would be a reference to Secretariat’s most famous race, his 1973 Belmont victory, conquering four other horses and his eventual physical mortality.
There were some eerie similarities between the two races. There is Secretariat pulling away from Sham at the almost identical point in the race, the backstretch near the second turn. There is the legendary race call by Belmont announcer Chic Anderson: “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine!” There is the iconic photograph of jockey Ron Turcotte glancing over his shoulder to spot his closest competitor, 31 lengths behind.
The victory earned Flightline a “Win and You’re In” expenses-paid trip to the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic returning to Keeneland Nov. 5. A victory there against the best dirt Thoroughbreds currently racing—or those whose connections have the courage to enter—will assure him Eclipse Award Champion Horse of the Year and Champion Older Male honors, and stamp him a Horse for the Ages.
In the days that have passed, the rest of the Thoroughbred world sought to catch up with its new superstar.
Some suggested not so fast, that the hype may yet be premature.
Across the pond in England, undefeated 10-for-10 Baaeed is still regarded as the world’s best current Thoroughbred racehorse. The turf runner is often compared with grass master Frankel, revered there as Secretariat is on dirt here. That view is backed by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), its Longines ratings placing Baaeed first at 128, Flightline one point behind in second.
Purchased by the late Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum for his Shadwell Stable, Baaeed will end his career Sunday, Oct. 2 on the turf at Longchamp in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, baring soft ground from rain that has plagued recent runnings of the Arc. That could divert him to a final race in England, the Oct. 15 Qipco Champion Stakes on turf at Ascot.
Closer to home, Brad Cox won last year’s Classic at Del Mar with his own front-running speed horse, Knicks Go.
He’ll saddle Cyberknife, motivated for a good showing by a still-live chance at an Eclipse. Should Cyberknife win or even finish ahead of Epicenter, the unsteady crown sitting atop Epicenter’s head as the likely Eclipse Award Champion Three-Year Old Male following his Travers victory could sway voters. Cyberknife holds a two-to-one G1 win advantage over his competitor.
Speaking of Epicenter, connections for the latest darling in the shifting three-year-old scene expressed confidence that their charge will continue to improve and be a force on Classic day. His connections may express public confidence, but feel private doubt. They know he can’t chance ducking the Classic for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) if Cyberknife runs and performs well. That diversion could fuel doubts Epicenter is deserving of Eclipse honors.
While we’re talking diversions, connections for Life Is Good face a dilemma so perplexing, his owner posted a poll asking fans if his world number 4-rated horse should run in the Classic or the Dirt Mile, the race he won handily last year at Del Mar. He could also be accused of ducking Flightline should he not run in the Classic, but risk an embarrassing defeat if he does.
The Classic still should be loaded, if only for a piece of American racing’s largest purse. Kentucky Derby Winner Rich Strike, a close fourth in the Travers, may be there. Chad Brown’s Derby and Travers third-place finisher, Zandon, will likely be joined by White Abarrio and Baffert’s Taiba.
Driving away, the Borough road sign overhead reads “Leaving Brooklyn…Fuhgeddaboudit,” a play on the fabled speaking accent of the locals.
Flightline: Hyped or Historic?
A full Classic field with some very accomplished horses Nov. 5 at Keeneland will remove all question marks and give racing fans a final sign.