Flightline, a horse for the ages, faces a date with fate at the Breeders’ Cup | Breeders Cup

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IIt’s hard to describe the uniqueness of the Breeders’ Cup to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. European racing fans have the chance to view the horses for five minutes in the parade ring before a race. At the Cup, all but a handful of riders in the 14th freshman event practice on the track each morning the week before the competition, dressed in their big race saddle pads for easy identification and under the watchful gaze of… well, anyone and everyone who is of the mind to show up.

Every horse with the famous purple saddle pad is an elite racehorse, one of the few in the world’s crop of six-figure colts good enough to race at the Cup, and there are around 200 of them at Keeneland in Kentucky this week. But there’s always an irresistible buzz that sweeps the runway when a true monster of land heads for the early morning breeze, and the excitement will have peaked this week as Flightline prepares to defend its unbeaten record in Saturday Breeders. ‘ Classic Cut.

Cigar, two-time winner Tiznow, Zenyatta and American Pharoah are among the standout champions — with a presence to match — who have lived up to their early billings over the past 30 years, and Flightline stands a long chance of emulating them this weekend. And, perhaps, to pass them on the 39-year-old Breeders’ Cup honor roll of all-time greats, too.

The relative merits of champions past and present will always be a source of fierce and unnecessary debate among fans, but Flightline’s official rating of 139 after his stunning performance in the Pacific Classic in Del Mar in September already suggests he is the best. dirt runner of the last decades. Flavien Prat, his jockey, calmed down for much of the last mile, but he still beat Country Grammer – the winners of the Dubai World Cup in March – by 19¼ lengths.

It was as remarkable as any performance by a dirt horse since Secretariat destroyed 31 lengths of his home ground in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. For nearly half a century, the style and detail of the Belmont of “Big Red” was also the big stick with which contenders for his greatness were soundly beaten. He covered the mile and a half at a very close to sprint pace from the start, reached the quarter pole faster than he had in his Kentucky Derby victory five weeks earlier, and finally stopped the stopwatch in 2 minutes 24 seconds. Along with his winning times in the Derby and Preakness Stakes, the other two US Triple Crown events, this remains a record to this day.

An injury shortly after arriving at John Sadler’s barn as a miner deprived Flightline of the chance to emulate Secretariat’s achievements as a three-year-old, and he didn’t see a trail until the 24th April 2021, a week before the best of its contemporaries leaves. poster for the Kentucky Derby.

Flightline owners, including Californian brothers Kosta and Pete Hronis who own a 37.5% share, reportedly dreamed of a run at Churchill Downs when they paid $1 million for Tapit’s son during the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale in 2019. But they knew they had a good horse on their hands, and he started out as favorite before finishing 13 lengths clear of his six rivals. “It just floats above the ground,” Hronis then sent veteran American turf writer Steve Haskin.

“We knew early on that he was something special that no one had ever seen before.” Four and a half months later, Flightline won another minor event by 13 lengths, then went straight to Company Grade One in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on December 26. He won that by 11½, then waltzed on his debut as a four-year-old in a freshman year at Belmont by six before heading into his – so far – career-defining run in the Pacific Classic.

It’s been a meteoric rise through the ranks, a concentrated burst of brilliance that sees Flightline already sitting just 1 pound behind Frankel’s mark of 140 at the end of a 14-race career, with an opportunity to push the unbeaten grand champion by Sir Henry Cecil. Saturday.

European fans will point out, quite rightly, that Frankel has put in several 140-worthy performances in his career, while Flightline may well retire to stud with just six starts in the book after Saturday’s Classic. There will inevitably be a sense of unfinished business if he does.

Flightline wins easily at Belmont Park in June. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

But before there can be any debate about a five-year career, Flightline must confirm his unearthly shine on America’s biggest racing stage. His draw in stall four is ideal, but the opposition is far stronger than any field he has faced to date. Epicenter, which confirmed itself as the best three-year-old with a decisive victory in the Travers Stakes in August, is the clear second favorite, while Life Is Good, winner of Dirt Mile last year in Del Mar, is another new and top-class opponent for the bet favorite.

Flightline’s two most obvious rivals are well-traveled and experienced, while the favorite has only made one start outside of California and might find a fall Kentucky a different and potentially unsettling experience.

Repeated viewing of his Pacific Classic win, however, doesn’t take away from the excitement. He already looks like a horse for the ages and the Classic could prove that beyond doubt.

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