I don't think I've ever witnessed such runaway adulation. It was as though the commentators and analysts joined in a competition to see who could erect the highest pile of praise, and when somebody said Flightline might be the greatest horse of all-time–well, it was then that my head struck my desk under the avalanche of hyperbolic plaudits.
And a day later, when his owners announced he would be retired, I immediately realized I couldn't vote for Flightline as Horse of the Year. That's why I'm writing: to explain my position. It comes down to this: I'm not going to reward people–Flightline's ownership group in this case–who put their own interests ahead of the sport's. That's exactly what these owners did. They have the prevailing values of a pocket calculator. When self-interest poses as sport, it's meretricious. Even airbrushed by apologists, it's ugly.
One of the owners, trying to rationalize the decision, said Flightline had nothing left to prove. Really? After just six races, he has nothing left to prove? Did he prove he could transfer his talent to the grass, as did Secretariat and Dr. Fager? Did Flightline prove he could defeat quality competition while carrying 130 or more pounds, as Assault and Spectacular Bid and many other truly great racehorses have done over the years? Did Flightline prove he could successfully take on an international field that included the world's best and most accomplished performers, as did Curlin, Tiznow and Cigar? No, no and no. In truth, Flightline was retired with a great deal left unproven.
When analyzed in a more sober moment, after the sport and its mouthpieces have taken a few of the 12 steps, it becomes clear that Flightline did not prove he's one of the all-time great racehorses. Perhaps he possessed great potential and almost certainly great talent. He might have been the most talented horse based in North America since Ghostzapper. But many horses in recent years have accomplished more, much more, than Flightline. And so he did not prove himself a great racehorse. Nobody can point to an array of Flightline accomplishments that collectively and indisputably shine with that unmistakeable glow of greatness. In the Classic he defeated a very good older horse, Olympiad, and a very good 3-year-old, Taiba, but Flightline's foremost competition, Epicenter, was injured before completing a half-mile. And in the Pacific Classic, Flightline defeated another very good older horse, Country Grammer, who had peaked six months earlier and hadn't won since. Flightline also defeated Speaker's Corner and Happy Saver, of course, but does that make him one of the greatest of all-time?
Nothing left to prove? After only six races? Really? After only four stakes victories? Really? That's either shamefully disingenuous or stunningly stupid.
In my view–and I own horses–an owner has three responsibilities. First and foremost, an owner has a responsibility to the horse; he's responsible for the horse's health and safety and care, but also for giving the athlete the opportunity to fulfill its racing potential. Second, an owner is responsible to the sport itself, its traditions, history and integrity. And an owner is responsible to horse racing's fans, for without them, the sport needs to realize, there's nothing. The owners of Flightline, in my view, betrayed all three responsibilities.
Horse racing and its fan base have been shrinking for many years. The sport, though, treats this as an enigma it doesn't want to solve because, well, truth is painful. But owners and breeders continue to shunt the sport's stars off the stage before they ever have an opportunity to utter their best lines, and with them go fans' loyalties. Flightline is only the latest example.
It just goes on and on and on, this obstinate journey toward self-destruction. Whenever owners yield to avarice and whenever they focus on the sales ring rather than the racetrack, the sport shrinks a little more. And horse racing will continue to shrink into insignificance if its leaders, or so-called leaders, will not sacrifice their personal interests for the sport's good. That's why I cannot and will not vote for Flightline.
Gary West is the former racing columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News. He has appeared as a commentator for racing on ESPN and CNN, and is a past president of the National Turf Writers Association.