Taking Stock: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of 2022

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Flightline | Benoit Photo

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Sergio Leone's 1966 masterpiece, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” was the last and best of a trilogy of Leone spaghetti westerns that upended the traditional genre.

Before Leone and other Italian directors like Sergio Corbucci set about redefining the Old West in Europe, traditional domestic westerns featured clean-cut leads like John Wayne, Alan Ladd, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart in films by directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks that clearly delineated the good from the bad and ugly. Not so Leone, who made the genre surreal and messy, and for him the good wasn't as easily distinguishable from the bad and ugly.

Clint Eastwood, Leone's star, was an anti-hero gunslinger with five-day stubble on a perpetually squinting face, a cigarillo between his lips, and a signature poncho draped over his tall frame.

When he flipped the poncho over his left shoulder, he was ready to draw the Colt Navy holstered on his thigh, and when he did, any gunfight was over in the blink of an eye. He was faster than fast–and unbelievably so.

Racing in 2022 was messy and surreal and was a Sergio Leone film in my mind, not a John Ford movie with clear-cut heroes and bad guys. Flightline was the star, playing the Eastwood role. No one was faster.

Here's the year's Good, Bad, and Ugly, boiled down in three acts.

The Good
The Good was Flightline (Tapit), wasn't it? He was good, but not so in the traditional sense for some, because he didn't race often like their racing heroes from the past. His detractors have grumbled, too, that he's not competing in 2023 because his connections are cashing out on his massive stud value. Some conspiracy theorists on social media have gone so far as to insinuate the $4.6 million share purchased by an undisclosed buyer at auction at Keeneland was engineered by the colt's ownership group to inflate his value. In reality, the share was bought fair and square by Travis Boersma, the billionaire co-founder of Dutch Bros. Coffee, with Coolmore the underbidder. In fact, Boersma has since purchased another share in Flightline.

As for how good Flightline was, the results of the recent Gl Malibu and Gll San Antonio add to the tale: Taiba (Gun Runner), beaten 8 3/4 lengths in third by Flightline in the Gl Breeders' Cup Classic, won the former by 4 1/4 lengths; and Country Grammer (Tonalist), second by 19 1/4 lengths to Flightline in the Gl Pacific Classic, won the latter by 4 1/2 lengths. At the time, the Pacific Classic impacted me in a way I haven't felt in a long time, and when Lane's End asked me to write the entry for Flightline for its annual stallion brochure, I wrote of that race in particular and said, in part:

He was a hot Santa Ana wind blowing in from the San Diego mountains that day. He not only fried the competition in the Pacific Classic but also the ability to think straight in the immediate aftermath. It was difficult to coherently put into words what was seen and felt as Flightline crossed the line. There was something unsettling about it, something that asked, “Is this real?”

Joan Didion, that great American writer from California, once said this about the Santa Ana winds: “The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf. The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called 'earthquake weather.'”

Didion's words capture the otherworldly essence and collective disbelief of what was witnessed at Del Mar. It had been, after all, only Flightline's fifth race. Previously, he'd dominated a field of Grade l winners by six lengths in the one-mile Gl Metropolitan H. at Belmont. His only other stakes outing before the Met Mile came in the seven-furlong Gl Malibu S. at Santa Anita, which he won by 11 1/2 lengths.

In the days following the Pacific Classic, as the magnitude of accomplishment settled in, journalists waxed lyrically about Flightline's performance, but the most telling verdicts came from unsentimental makers of figures and ratings: 126 from Beyer, the fastest in almost 20 years and the second-best ever; -8 1/2 from Thoro-Graph, the best in its history; -2 from Ragozin,
an indicator of highly elite class; and a ranking of 143 from the internationally respected Timeform, which places Flightline tops among American horses of all time and within range of the publication's highest-ever weighted horse, Frankel, at 147.

Flightline was clearly special.

The Bad
The handling of HISA was bad–twice over. There's no way to sugarcoat this. The bill was first passed without industry consensus when Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican and then Majority Leader in the senate, tacked it on to the year-end spending bill in 2020, and after a part of it was found unconstitutional last year, Sen. McConnell, now Minority Leader, once again attached an amendment to it to the spending bill last month with corrective language that's supposed to address the issue the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found objectionable, which is that government power was delegated to a private entity without adequate government supervision.

Sen. McConnell, in this role, plays the part actor Lee Van Cleef did in the Leone film, the hired gun Angel Eyes. Part of the entry for Angel Eyes in Wikipedia reads: “A ruthless… mercenary… always finishes a job for which he is paid.” Who hired–lobbied is the polite word–Sen. McConnell? Pro HISA advocates, including The Jockey Club, a mostly Republican organization. And why is this ironic and even surreal? Because many of the constitutional issues being litigated in courts around HISA are anti-Republican stances about states' rights and regulatory measures. And many of the federal justices ruling on these issues were named to the bench by Republican Presidents, whose appointments were supported by Sen. McConnell and most Republicans.

What happens if another conservative judge rules against HISA in one of several suits on the table at the moment? You already know: Sen. McConnell will be back to tack another amendment to the spending bill a year from now. He's got plenty of Democrats in the senate who will support him on this, but his own party is highly critical of him for putting forth measures that are anathema to conservatives.

Sen. McConnell and his posse should have had this right from the beginning, with industry consensus and a clear understanding that any challenges to HISA would come from McConnell's own party and be adjudicated by justices put in place by them.

The Ugly
Who will be the champion 3-year-old colt of 2022? Will it be Epicenter (Not This Time), who won one Grade l race last year, or will it be Taiba, the winner of three? I tweeted this recently from the WTC company account, @Sirewatch:

“In the matchup for Eclipse 3yo between Epicenter vs. Taiba, the winner is Ron Winchell. He owns Epicenter and is a major shareholder in Gun Runner, the sire of Taiba.”

Winchell is a leading man from a John Ford film, a John Wayne type of winner.

Taiba is owned by Amr Zedan, a Saudi businessman, and trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, both of whom are Sergio Leone characters, perhaps a composite in this case of the Eli Wallach role of Tuco, a wanted Mexican bandit in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

Things certainly got ugly for Zedan and Baffert after their Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for betamethasone after the 2021 Gl Kentucky Derby, and events have snowballed from there, including the Churchill Downs ban of Baffert and the subsequent lawsuits filed by Zedan and Baffert in response. All of this translated to negative publicity and quite likely cost Medina Spirit an Eclipse Award.

The champion 3-year-old colt of 2021 was Godolphin's Essential Quality, who won two Grade l races, the same as Medina Spirit. Except Medina Spirit also defeated older horses by winning the Gl Awesome Again – something his rival didn't do – and finished ahead of Essential Quality the two times they met, in the Derby (Essential Quality was fourth) and the Breeders' Cup
Classic (Medina Spirit was second to Knicks Go and Essential Quality was third).

The resilient Zedan and Baffert are somehow back again with Taiba, but how will voters respond this time? Will they snub Zedan and Baffert again and go with Epicenter, who had a fine campaign that included a win in the prestigious Gl Travers? Or will they jettison both dirt colts and go for Godolphin's Modern Games (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}), who won two Grade l races on turf against older horses? Don't scoff, there's been some chatter about that on social media among potential voters.

Owner and handicapper (and economics professor) Marshall Gramm recently noted on Twitter the similarities of Taiba, Epicenter, and Modern Games to the trio of Snow Chief (three Grade l wins), Ferdinand (one), and Manila (three, all on turf) from 1986. Snow Chief won the Eclipse that year, but Manila, an outstanding turf horse, was the best of the three. Back then, however,
turf racing didn't have the same stature it now seems to hold with some voters.

These days it's hard to agree on anything. Consensus is elusive. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly are seemingly interchangeable, depending on viewpoint. And facts seem to matter less than opinion. That's the chaos that Leone captured in 1966, and it's very much alive now.

Welcome to 2023.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

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