Flightline Matches Frankel–Official!

Flightline | Breeders' Cup Eclipse Sportswire

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LONDON, UK–It was perhaps not as apt a setting for a coronation as its sumptuous Palladian aspect suggests, bearing in mind that it was on a scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall that the first King Charles was executed in 1649. But the accession of a third version will instead leave all contention to those historians of the Turf who must determine where the most regal American Thoroughbred of recent times may stand in the pantheon of the modern breed.

Flightline (Tapit) is about to start his second career with a clean slate and, such being the mysteries of our walk of life, with no guarantees of equivalent success. But on Tuesday the stature he achieved in his meteoric career, albeit comprising no more than six starts, was sealed by his formal confirmation as the most accomplished racehorse on the planet in 2022—and an exact match, on an official rating of 140, for the European great Frankel (GB).

Arguably a mere numerical rating could only confine his brilliance, and not truly measure it. John Sadler, his trainer, feels that none of those who braved competition with Flightline were able to take him anywhere near his limit. By the same token, however, the Longines World Racing Awards can at least assist comparisons with two groups that could never offer him a benchmark of flesh and blood: namely, horses like Baaeed (GB) (Sea The Stars {Ire}), similarly bestriding inferiors over the water, where he was awarded a rating of 135; and also those spectral presences who have either gone before, like Secretariat, or have preceded Flightline to the attempted replication of their genetic prowess, like Frankel himself.

Awarding the two “F”-freaks an identical rating may have appeared a rather convenient solution, especially as Flightline had been rated 139 after his runaway success in the GI Pacific Classic. Dominic Gardiner-Hill, BHA head of handicapping, explained that international colleagues had debated long and hard at that time whether to go to 140, but decided to wait for corroboration in the GI Longines Breeders' Cup Classic. That was emphatically forthcoming, so much so that the Classic was here declared the best run in 2022, assessed by an average rating for the first four of 126.75.

Flightline was rated 5lbs higher than Baaeed; then followed, at a respectful distance, Japanese star Equinox (Jpn) (Kitasan Black {Jpn}) on 126 alongside Aussie speedball Nature Strip (Aus) (Nicconi {Aus}). Leading American sophomore Epicenter (Not This Time) shares a ranking of 125 with Life Is Good (Into Mischief) and Euro star Vadeni (Fr) (Churchill {Ire}). As for those recent champions measured during the evolving standardization of international handicaps (obviously Secretariat and others long predated this kind of exercise), Sea The Stars (Ire) reached 136, with Cigar achieving the highest previous dirt mark on 135. American Pharoah and Arrogate shared 134.

Such debates as Frankel vs. Flightline can, of course, never be resolved and for many of us there seems little point in pursuing them. An occasion like this was sooner a chance to celebrate our good fortune, in witnessing a generational talent; and to honor those horsemen and -women so integral to Flightline's fulfilment that he, too, can count himself lucky that he happened to enter their supervision.

If anyone imagines that it was simply a question of staying out of his way, then just consider these two samples of the way the crew around Flightline were equal to their historic opportunity. His GI Pacific Classic success, perhaps his defining moment in drawing just shy of 20 lengths clear, was a fourth in five years for his trainer John Sadler (with Hronis Racing a beneficiary every time). And his memorable final bow at Keeneland made him the third GI Breeders' Cup Classic winner bought at auction by David Ingordo, though still only in his 40s.

It was fitting, then, that many who have contributed to this exhilarating ride were present to salute their invincible. “You know, he never hid his talent,” said Sadler on accepting his prize. “He was a star from the day he first walked into the barn, and that was the way he walked out. Really we're so grateful to have had a horse like this: most horsemen never will, and I feel very blessed.

“I'd like to thank Longines and IFHA, everybody's treated us fabulously here in London, and obviously the ownership group has been sensational. Jane Lyon bred a beautiful horse. And I think another point is that thanks to the Jockey Club and Breeders' Cup, this horse ran medication-free, which I think fits really well with the international community moving forward.”

This remark prompted notably warm applause. Sadler's own role, meanwhile, was emphasized by all the partners in the horse, for instance by Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds. “People try to put it into words but it was like dealing with Picasso at work,” he said. “And when I think about the Hall of Fame… Look, obviously I'm biased. But what I think was reassuring to all of us is that John truly is experienced and it was really cool to see him take great pride in the work that he and his team did. I think it's providence that the horse ended up in John Sadler's hands.

“I also want to mention David Ingordo, who picked the horse out: his 'tentacles' with John meant that all these things kind of came together, and he shows the power of the partnership. When you have a horse like this, at this level, there's a confidence you can have when you know you're in the right hands. I think people across the world saw very quickly that John Sadler was the one person that fits this horse like a glove.”

Needless to say, it was a shame that sporadic mishaps prevented Flightline from demonstrating the sheer durability that we used to demand of champions in eras past. But it always felt fanciful to expect his owners to persevere for another year on the racetrack. It would have been very difficult to find horses prepared to take him on, on the domestic stage, and evidently there was little appetite to go and plunder huge purses in the desert. Moreover the potential insurance costs of venturing overseas, for instance to Royal Ascot, would presumably have been mind-boggling.

“If he's started his career earlier, and you're asking the same question of a 3-year-old, then you'd still have all those races for older horses to run in,” reasoned Bill Farish, who was represented in the ownership group through Woodford Thoroughbreds and now supervises Flightline's new career at Lane's End. “But he's run in those already, so all you'd be doing is backtracking. When a stallion starts as a 5-year-old, that's late enough: starting at six is another thing again.”

“I felt he had nothing more to prove,” said Flightline's breeder (and founding partner) Jane Lyon of Summer Wind Farm, of her contribution to the partners' consensus. “It was beautiful to watch him run. But I think we'd just have been chasing purses and he didn't deserve that. And the danger to a horse in training is one [that makes me] personally very happy that he's gone to the breeding shed.”

Lyon and her farm manager Bobby Spalding reported that Flightline's half-brother by Curlin, named Eagles Flight, will soon be leaving their care to begin the breaking-in process at WinStar. “He's really grown, he's gotten big, a gorgeous horse, a real deep bay with dark mane and tail,” Spalding said. “He's a nice horse to be around, he and Flightline are very similar in nature.”

Their dam Feathered (Indian Charlie) missed on a single late cover to Tapit but she'll be returning to Gainesway in the quest of a full-sibling to the champion.

“She has a yearling filly by Into Mischief,” said Lyon. “But unfortunately when we sent her back to Tapit, he only had one chance to breed her because of the late foaling–and she did not catch. So she has a spring off, which she certainly deserves, but she'd better get ready because we'll be sending her back!”

Interestingly for the audience gathered here, Feathered ended her career on turf, a graded stakes winner on that surface before finishing second in the GI American Oaks. She is out of the Dynaformer mare Receipt, herself stakes-placed on grass, and hopes are high that Flightline's superstar status could help break down the notorious parochialism of European breeders regarding dirt sires.

Lyon said: “I think because Feathered could run on dirt and turf and because Flightline, in this humble opinion, is a super example of the species, I think it's entirely possible that his foals could run on either surface. And anything else you might throw at them!”

Spalding named one leading bloodstock adviser counselling European clients to send mares to Flightline.

“He really believes in him on turf, and there are some Japanese breeders using him too,” he said. “He's a very agile horse, not at all one-paced, and should really suit the racing here.”

“We definitely have encouraged it,” Farish added, addressing this dimension of the horse's stallion potential. “We've had some good participation in his book, with a fair number of turf mares and also quite a few American mares bought to go over to Japan. So hopefully we'll have a good spread of horses because I remember when Kingmambo really hit, having that broad international appeal was amazing.

“He's a wonderful size, 16.2, which is viewed as a little bigger over here than it is at home but I think one of the things people are noticing about Flightline, when they come to see him, is that he's not a great big horse. I would have loved to see him run on turf, that would have been fun because I think he could run on anything. Hopefully he'll get enough of a chance [to prove his versatility] because there are just so many turf mares in America now, with turf racing getting more and more profile.”

Farish was relieved to report that test-breeding the farm's priceless new resident, a tense moment with any new stallion, had proved a great success.

“Luckily it has all gone very, very well,” he said. “You really hope that their initial experience is a good one, so they don't have anything negative in their mind about the whole thing. You definitely could, with any horse. But he's taken to his job really well. He's such an intelligent horse, he's just got a great mind on him and figures things out quickly. He was in and out of the shed in four minutes, one jump. And the dismount sample looks great: lots of swimmers! All that couldn't look better.”

Flightline's superiority was such that he dragged up the average ratings of the Keeneland protagonists to a global high for the year. None of the second, third and fourth ever actually achieved that giddy average of 126.75 in his own right! Flightline performed a similar service, incidentally, for both the other races he contested in 2022. These three were the only American races that broke European domination of the top 10.

Drew Fleming, president and CEO of the Breeders' Cup, was present to celebrate the Classic's return to a pinnacle last scaled in 2016. It felt like a particularly welcome validation in a changing international landscape, where horsemen nowadays are traveling elite animals in February and March to peak again for eye-watering prizes in Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

“It's fantastic,” Fleming said. “It was a truly spectacular race and it was like the Beatles were there, round the paddock. This is a testament to racing and it's an honor to the Breeders' Cup just to be included among those [world leading] races and for us to win Longines Best Race Award is amazing. We've got a wonderful team, constantly making sure that the Breeders' Cup will have the best racehorses compete. And thanks to our owners and breeders and nominators that contribute to the Breeders' Cup, which allow us to have $31 million of purses and awards. That certainly helps.”

The one missing ingredient in recent times has been a European challenger in the Classic. Was that a priority going forward? “Absolutely!” Fleming replied. “The more international our races can be, the stronger the Breeders' Cup is. I think nothing's off the table with the Breeders' Cup: you saw in 2021 at Del Mar that we had significant success with the Japanese participation, and we look forward to continuing that momentum.”

Though his limited appearances surely curtailed his public fanbase, Flightline did contribute to evangelism for the sport in highlighting a growing breadth of opportunity in ownership. Two stakes in the horse were further diluted through partnership–at a relatively high level with West Point, and via as many as 50 smaller shares in Woodford.

“It was amazing to see all their families get into it,” said Farish, noting that some of the investors have been inspired to reach for the next level. “It really was a treat, because that's what we did it for: the possibility that someday they could have a great horse. They've had a blast, and how could it not make you more passionate?”

“It shows owners across the world that you have to keep dreaming,” Finley agreed. “Either you have to buy horses or breed horses, but as long as you stay in the business, as long as you stay at it, then you have a shot. These partnerships are the future of the business.”

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