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Jon White: Top 10 Performances of 2021

by Jon White

January 6, 2022


Now that it’s 2022, it’s time for my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States in 2021. I have annually compiled such a list for Xpressbet.com going all the way back to 2004.

A Thoroughbred’s performance can make this list for a variety of reasons, such as:

--A win by a big margin while showing brilliance.

--Recording a fast final time and/or speed figure.

--Being especially game in victory or defeat.

--Overcoming adversity.

--Defeating a particularly strong group of opponents.

--Carrying more weight than usual and/or spotting considerable weight.

--Achieving something historic or unusual.

The importance of the race itself also plays a role in determining whether or not I believe a performance deserves to make the list.

Just missing the Top 10 was Yaupon’s victory in the Grade I Forego Stakes at seven furlongs on dirt Aug 28 for owners William and Corinne Heiligbrodt, trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Ricardo Santana Jr.

You can view the 2021 Forego on YouTube (John Imbriale has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlP0oybGBSo

Yaupon did record a fast final time (1:21.74) and an excellent Beyer Speed Figure (103). But what made this performance especially noteworthy was how he managed to win the Forego by a head despite Firenze Fire savaging him more than once during the stretch run.

It was the second time that Firenze Fire found himself involved in a savaging incident during a race.

In the Forego Stakes, Firenze Fire was the biter. In the Grade III Gallant Bob Stakes at Parx in 2018, Firenze Fire was the victim when Whereshetoldmetogo was the biter.

As I wrote for Xpressbet.com following the 2021 Forego, what Firenze Fire did during the stretch run was probably the most bizarre thing I have ever seen occur in the thousands and thousands of races I’ve watched ever since my parents first took me to the track for the first time in the spring of 1965 at Yakima Meadows in Yakima, Wash.

On a number of occasions, I have seen a horse savage another horse during a race. But I have never seen a horse do it in such a prolonged manner as Firenze Fire when he was savaging Yaupon in the Forego.

As noted above, Santana rode Yaupon in the Forego. Jose Ortiz piloted Firenze Fire for trainer Kelly Breen.

The Equibase chart comments regarding Yaupon and Firenze Fire state: “YAUPON came away in good order then showed good speed while hustled, set the pace under pressure to his outside, came under coaxing along the rail on the turn, was asked for his best in the two path into the stretch, dueled inside of FIRENZE FIRE under a left-handed crop, had that foe savage him badly in the face starting just before the sixteenth pole and ending about forty yards from the wire with a bump then gamely prevailed. FIRENZE FIRE displayed good speed, pressed the pace on the outside, passed the half-mile pole under coaxing, drew even with YAUPON in the two path on the turn, was asked for his best while three wide into the stretch, dueled outside of YAUPON under a right-handed crop, began to savage that foe badly coming to the sixteenth pole, continued to savage that opponent while the rider attempted to reach up and pull him off using the right rein, lost momentum in the process, had the jockey’s hand slip off the rein multiple times while trying to gather it up, was finally able to grab the rein about forty yards from the wire while bumping at that juncture and just missed.”

Fortunately, Yaupon reportedly came out of the race with nothing more than a little nick on his cheek. In the final furlong, his tongue was flapping out of the left side of his mouth. He is very lucky that the tongue was not flapping out of the right side of his mouth or else he might have had it bitten off by Firenze Fire.

“He’s always been the kind of horse who will try to bite you or kick you a little when you saddle him,” Breen said of Firenze Fire to Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch a day after the Forego. “He definitely has an attitude. But he’s not really mean, and as long as I’ve had him, he’s never tried to savage a person or another horse before the incident on Saturday.”

As for Firenze Fire being the victim in a savaging incident perpetrated by Whereshetoldmetogo during the 2018 Gallant Bob, the Equibase chart comments state: “FIRENZE FIRE pursed the pacesetter inside, angled out on the turn when advancing, led briefly at the quarter pole, was passed nearing the eighth pole, fought back to regain the advantage and was savaged by outside rival nearing the finish in a determined victory. WHERESHETOLDMETOGO chased very wide down the backstretch, rallied strongly wide and led narrowly at the eighth pole, lost the lead and savaged the winner approaching the wire.”

And now for my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of 2021:

10. DOMESTIC SPENDING in Belmont Park’s Grade I Manhattan Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on a turf course listed as good June 5. (Owned by Klaravich Stables; trained by Chad Brown; ridden by Flavien Prat; a 4-year-old Great Britain-bred Kingman gelding.)

Seventh early in the field of 10, Domestic Spending uncorked a powerful rally to win going away by 2 3/4 lengths as the 3-2 favorite. He defeated a strong group that included such Grade I winners at the time as Colonial Liam, Channel Cat and Gufo, plus future Grade I winners Rockemperor and Tribhuvan.

Pacesetter Tribhuvan held on for second in the Manhattan. Gufo, the early trailer, came on to finish third.

Domestic Spending completed his 1 1/4-mile trip in the fine time of 1:59.08. In fifths, he rocketed home the final quarter-mile in :22 3/5. Domestic Spending registered a 106 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in this race.

You can view the 2021 Manhattan on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvJPTHsYR3M

9. YIBIR in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar at 1 1/2 miles on turf Nov. 6. (Owned by Godolphin; trained by Charlie Appleby; ridden by William Buck; a 3-year-old Great Britain-bred Dubawi colt.)

After winning four of 10 in Great Britain, Yibir registered a 2 1/2-length victory in the $1 million Jockey Club Derby at Belmont Park in his U.S. debut on Sept. 18.

In the ensuing Breeders’ Cup Turf, Yibir faced his elders for the first time. Next-to-last with a half-mile to go in the field of 14, he closed with a rush to win by a half-length in 2:25.90. Yibir was credited with a 105 Beyer Speed Figure.

Domestic Spending and United were scratched from the BC Turf due to both geldings having inflammation in a front leg.

The way I see it, Yibir’s victory in America’s richest grass race, the $4 million BC Turf, ranks as the best U.S. performance on the grass in 2021, edging Domestic Spending’s win in the Manhattan for this distinction.

You can view the 2021 BC Turf on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7uZV6DvhrY

8. ROMBAUER in Pimlico’s Grade I Preakness Stakes at 1 3/16 miles on dirt May 15. (Owned by John and Diane Fradkin; trained by Michael McCarthy; ridden by John Velazquez; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Twirling Candy colt.)

Sixth early in the field of 10, Rombauer charged to the front a little more than a sixteenth from the finish. He then drew away to win the middle jewel of the Triple Crown by 3 1/2 lengths in an 11-1 upset. Midnight Bourbon came in second as the 3-1 second choice in the wagering. Medina Spirit finished third as the 2-1 favorite after having finished first two weeks earlier in the Grade I Kentucky Derby.

You can view the 2021 Preakness on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMSY5mDhPt8

Rombauer’s final time of 1:53.62 tied for the sixth-fastest in Preakness history when adjusted to fifths of a second.

These are the 13 fastest final times in the history of the Preakness in fifths:

1:53 flat Secretariat (1973)
1:53 1/5 Swiss Skydiver (2020)
1:53 2/5 Curlin (2007)
1:53 2/5 Louis Quatorze (1996)
1:53 2/5 Tank’s Prospect (1985)
1:53 3/5 Rombauer (2021)
1:53 3/5 Summer Squall (1990)
1:53 3/5 Gate Dancer (1984)
1:53 4/5 Sunday Silence (1989)
1:54 flat Hansel (1991)
1:54 flat Canonero II (1971)
1:54 1/5 War of Will (2019)
1:54 1/5 Codex (1980)
1:54 1/5 Spectacular Bid (1979)

After the Preakness, Rombauer finished third to Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont. It would turn out to be Rombauer’s final career start.

7. LETRUSKA in Belmont Park’s Grade I Ogden Phipps Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on dirt June 5. (Owned by St. George Stable; trained by Fausto Gutierrez; ridden by Jose Ortiz; a 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Super Saver mare.)

Letruska won with authority by 2 3/4 lengths as the 6-5 favorite. She completed her 1 1/16-mile journey in an excellent 1:41.25. Bonny South ran second. Shedaresthedevil finished third in the field of five.

You can view the 2021 Ogden Phipps on YouTube (John Imbriale has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEr0MLQO_S8

This was sweet revenge for Letruska. In her only 2021 defeat prior to the Phipps, she had lost by a head when second to Shedaresthedevil in the Grade II Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 13.

6. KNICKS GO in Saratoga’s Grade I Whitney Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on dirt Aug. 7. (Owned by Korea Racing Authority; trained by Brad Cox; ridden by Joel Rosario; a 5-year-old Maryland-bred son of Paynter.)

Knicks Go began alertly in the Whitney, but he did not immediately get a clear lead. He vied for the advantage in the run to the first turn while racing outside the filly Swiss Skydiver. But then, in the blink of an eye on the turn, Knicks Go opened a daylight advantage before reaching the backstretch.

“Running on a turn has become something of a weapon for Knicks Go,” I wrote for Xpressbet.com after the Whitney. “He seems to possess the athleticism to navigate a turn quicker than his adversaries. His prowess on a turn perhaps helps explain all of Knicks Go’s wins and losses after Cox took over the training duties prior to Knicks Go’s first 2020 start.”

For Cox, Knicks Go was six for six in two-turn races through the Whitney, but winless both times he had raced around one turn. Knicks Go finished fourth in the Group I, $20 million Saudi Cup at about 1 1/8 miles around one turn on Feb. 20, then also ran fourth in the Grade I, $1 million Met Mile around one turn on June 5.

In the Whitney, Knicks Go opened up a commanding five-length lead early in the run down the backstretch while smoothly rolling along for Rosario. Approaching the far turn, Knicks Go’s lead diminished while he “was given a breather,” as accurately noted in the Equibase race chart.

Turning for home, Swiss Skydiver loomed menacingly when she moved up to get within about a length of Knicks Go at the quarter pole. But then, after Knicks Go drifted a bit wide coming into the lane, he found another gear in upper stretch. Knicks Go kicked away to increase his lead to three lengths a furlong out, then continued home strongly to prevail by 4 1/2 lengths in a splendid 1:47.40.

Knicks Go, backed down to even-money favoritism, recorded fractional times in fifths of :23 2/5, :23 1/5, :23 2/5, :24 2/5 and :12 4/5.

The four Whitney opponents left in his wake had all earned in excess of $1 million. Maxfield never threatened and finished second. Silver State briefly looked dangerous from along the inner rail coming into the lane, but then lacked the needed punch in the final furlong and came in third. Swiss Skydiver, racing for the first time since April 17, weakened in the stretch and finished fourth, nearly 11 lengths behind Knicks Go. By My Standards trailed throughout after stumbling at the start.

It said something about just what a terrific race Knicks Go ran to win the Whitney that one of the vanquished, Silver State, was credited with a career-best 102 Beyer Speed Figure even though he lost by 6 1/4 lengths. Silver State previously had won the Met Mile at odds of 5-1, a race in which Knicks Go ended up fourth as the 4-5 favorite.

Knicks Go received a 111 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in the Whitney. Beyers for the Whitney go back to 1990. The biggest Whitney figure during this period was Commentator’s huge 120 in 2008. The only two Beyers higher than Knicks Go’s 111 were Honor Code’s 113 in 2015 and Gun Runner’s 112 in 2017.

You can view the 2021 Whitney on YouTube (John Imbriale has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsB6R8GAZiY

5. HOT ROD CHARLIE in Belmont Park’s Grade I Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles on dirt June 5. (Owned by Boat Racing, Gainesway Stable, Roadrunner Racing and William Strauss; trained by Doug O’Neill; ridden by Flavien Prat; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Oxbow colt.)

It’s highly unusual that a loss would make this list. But that’s an indication of what a terrific race Hot Rod Charlie ran in defeat when he finished second at odds of 9-2 in the Belmont.

You can view the 2021 Belmont on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K83iqCzUZ0

Many have expressed the opinion that Hot Rod Charlie ran a better race in the Belmont than the victorious Essential Quality. Look, I get where those who say that are coming from. But the fact is, Essential Quality won.

Nevertheless, there is no question that by going as fast as Hot Rod Charlie did early and still finishing second, his Belmont performance is worthy of ranking No. 5 on this list.

Hot Rod Charlie seized the lead at once and ran the opening quarter-mile in :22.78 or :22 3/5 in fifths.

That’s the fastest opening quarter in the long history of the Belmont when contested at 1 1/2 miles. The Belmont was first run in 1867.

The fastest initial quarter before Hot Rod Charlie had occurred all the way back in 1945. That’s when The Doge sped the initial quarter in :22 4/5. Paying the price for such a torrid pace in a 1 1/2-mile race on what was then a deep track, The Doge faltered and finished seventh in the field of eight. Pavot prevailed by five lengths. The Doge lost by a little more than 24 lengths.

There have been 95 editions of the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles. Hot Rod Charlie covered the opening half-mile in :46.49 or :46 2/5 in fifths. The only horse to ever post a faster time for the first half-mile was Secretariat, who was clocked in :46 1/5.

Below are the horses responsible for the only :46 and change fractional times in the history of the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles:

Year Time Horse, Finished (Winner if Different)

1973 :46 1/5 Secretariat, finished 1st
2021 :46 2/5 Hot Rod Charlie, finished 2nd (Essential Quality)
2013 :46 3/5 Frac Daddy, finished last in field of 14 (Palace Malice)
1991 :46 3/5 Corporate Report, finished 4th (Hansel)
1966 :46 3/5 Highest Honors, finished last in field of 13 (Amberoid)
1959 :46 3/5 Manassa Mauler, finished 4th (Sword Dancer)
1996 :46 4/5 Appealing Skier, finished 12th (Editor’s Note)
1957 :46 4/5 Bold Ruler, finished 3rd (Gallant Man)

Secretariat, believed by many to be the greatest Thoroughbred of all time, is the only horse to have ever run the first half of the Belmont as fast as :46 and change and still win.

But the above chart also points out what an admirable race Hot Rod Charlie ran in defeat. Despite recording the second-fastest half-mile time in the history of the race when contested at 1 1/2 miles, he held on well enough to finish second, leaving everyone other than Essential Quality way behind.

Hot Rod Charlie finished 11 1/4 lengths in front of Preakness victor Rombauer, who wound up a distant third in the Belmont Stakes field of eight.

The following splits all belonged to Secretariat when he won the Belmont by 31 lengths to end a 25-year Triple Crown drought:

:23 3/5, :22 3/5, :23 3/5, :24 2/5, :24 4/5, 25 flat

These were the splits in this year’s Belmont:

:22 3/5, :23 3/5, :25 2/5, :25 1/5, :24 4/5, :24 3/5

Essential Quality, only a head off the leading Hot Rod Charlie at the quarter pole, is the one who ran the final quarter in :24 3/5. All the other splits belonged to Hot Rod Charlie.

Hot Rod Charlie lost by 1 1/4 lengths. Tacking on one-fifth of a second because he lost by that much means that even though Hot Rod Charlie ran the fastest opening quarter in the history of the Belmont when contested at 1 1/2 miles and still managed to run the final quarter in :24 4/5, a fifth of a second faster than Secretariat in his Belmont.

4. LIFE IS GOOD in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar at one mile on dirt Nov. 6. (Owned by CHC Inc. and WinStar Farm; trained by Todd Pletcher; ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt.)

Life Is Good was the early favorite in Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool prior to an injury that knocked him out of the Triple Crown races. He emerged from a sharp six-furlong workout in 1:11.40 at Santa Anita on March 30 with a hind ankle injury that required surgery.

When Life Is Good returned to the races on Aug. 2, he finished second in a thrilling renewal of the Grade I H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes at Saratoga. He ran admirably in defeat. Life Is Good lost by a neck to Jackie’s Warrior, who almost certainly will be one of the three finalists for a 2021 Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter.

After the Jerkens, Life Is Good resumed his winning ways. He cruised to a 5 1/2-furlong victory in the Grade II Kelso Handicap on Sept. 25, which really was nothing more than paid workout for him. He faced older foes for the first time in the Kelso.

Life Is Good then trounced his elders again as the 3-5 favorite in the BC Dirt Mile. He won in front-running fashion by 5 3/4 lengths in 1:34.12. This performance was good enough for a career-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure.

You can view the 2021 BC Classic on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYNMlR2TPwE

3. KNICKS GO in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Nov. 6. (Owned by Korea Racing Authority; trained by Brad Cox; ridden by Joel Rosario; a 5-year-old Maryland-bred son of Paynter.)

Knicks Go yet again utilized his natural early zip to his best advantage. He dashed immediately to the front and stayed there all the way to the end of the 1 1/4-mile, his first race going this far. Many had expected Medina Spirit to either vie for the early lead or, at the very least, push Knicks Go in the early going. But that didn’t happen.

You can’t say you weren’t warned that might happen.

Two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, I wrote this for Xpressbet.com: “Through the many years that I’ve been analyzing races, I have learned that it can be tricky to try and forecast pace. That’s because the pace situation can change considerably if an early speed horse does not have a good start. For example, if Medina Spirit does not have an alert beginning in the BC Classic, it would help Knicks Go. And the same goes for Medina Spirit if Knicks Go happens to have a tardy start.”

Knicks Go exited the gate quickly. But Medina Spirit, with John Velazquez aboard, did begin sluggishly. Medina Spirit seemed to hesitate just a bit when the outstanding starter Jay Slender pushed the button. That forced Johnny V. to make a split-second decision. Should he hustle Medina Spirit early or not?

After the slow start, Velazquez chose to not put the pedal to the metal, so to speak. He thought that if he gunned Medina Spirit early to go after Knicks Go, who already had the jump on Medina Spirit, it could take a toll on Medina Spirit toward the end of the 1 1/4-mile journey. No one else in the field of eight was quick enough to go with Knicks Go early.

Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman put it well when he wrote: “The race was 1 1/4 miles, but it was over a quarter-mile into it. No one went with Knicks Go, and when he gets to rock along with his high cruising speed, he’s unbeatable going two turns.”

Indeed, Knicks Go’s BC Classic win made him eight for eight in two-turn races for Cox.

Knicks Go won by 2 3/4 lengths at 3-1, a surprisingly high price in my opinion. Most likely a reason his odds were not shorter was the concern some had that Knicks Go might not be able to win going 1 1/4 miles. Bettors made Essential Quality the 9-5 favorite after the 3-year-old star had proven to possess the stamina to succeed in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes earlier in the year.

In the BC Classic, Knicks Go was two lengths in front with a furlong to go. Once again he increased his lead in the final furlong, just as he had done when reeling off three consecutive victories in 1 1/8-mile races going into the BC Classic.

In terms of Knicks Go’s dominance in those three 1 1/8-mile races, he won the Grade III Cornhusker Handicap by 10 1/4 lengths, Grade I Whitney Stakes by four lengths and Grade III Lukas Classic by 2 3/4 lengths.

Knicks Go is one of only four horses to win the BC Classic without having previously raced 1 1/4 miles, joining Ghostzapper in 2004, Raven’s Pass in 2008 and Zenyatta in 2009.

Additionally, Knicks Go became the sixth horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races, joining Zenyatta, Beholder, Stephanie’s Kitten, Secret Circle and Golden Pal. Golden Pal, like Knicks Go, achieved the feat in 2021. Golden Pal won the 2021 BC Turf Sprint after capturing the 2020 BC Juvenile Turf Sprint.

A couple of weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, I wrote this for Xpressbet.com: “I believe what makes Knicks Go such a tough dude to beat in two-turn races is his ability to exhibit both early and late speed in a race. That produces a lethal one-two punch to his foes.”

In the BC Classic, Knicks Go recorded individual splits of :23.16, :22.61, :24.27, :25.24 and :24.29.

Check out how fast he went early, especially his second quarter in :22.61. Yet he still had plenty of gas left in the tank to run his final quarter in :24.29. That strong :24.29 final quarter by Knicks Go set the bar too high for Medina Spirit, Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie or anyone else to reel him in.

The BC Classic runner-up was Medina Spirit. Essential Quality came in third, three-quarters of a length behind Medina Spirit. Hot Rod Charlie ran fourth, one length behind Essential Quality. Completing the order of finish were Stilleto Boy, Art Collector, Tripoli and Max Player.

Knicks Go’s final time was a laudable 1:59.57. It was faster than Gun Runner’s 2:01.29 when he won the 2017 BC Classic by 2 1/4 lengths at Del Mar.

In fifths, Knick’s Go’s final time was 1:59 2/5, faster by four-fifths of a second than Gun Runner’s 2:01 1/5. In spite of that, Knicks Go’s Beyer Speed Figure of 112 for his BC Classic was lower than the 117 Gun Runner received for his triumph in the 2017 renewal. This makes me wonder if perhaps Knicks Go’s Beyer should be higher than a 112.

You can view the 2021 BC Classic on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5b_iAF0p4pU

2. ESSENTIAL QUALITY in Belmont Park’s Grade I Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles on dirt June 5. (Owned by Godolphin; trained by Brad Cox; ridden by Luis Saez; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Tapit colt.)

Fifth early in the field of eight, Essential Quality won by 1 1/4 lengths. He completed 1 1/2 miles in 2:27.11, making it the fifth-fastest Belmont in the last three decades.

You can view the 2021 Belmont on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K83iqCzUZ0

The five fastest Belmonts in the last 30 years are listed below:

Time Winner (Year)

2:26.13 A.P. Indy (1992)
2:26.56 Point Given (2001)
2:26.65 American Pharoah (2015)
2:26.82 Tabasco Cat (1994)
2:27.11 Essential Quality (2021)

In fifths, Essential Quality ran the final quarter-mile in the Belmont in :24 3/5. That was faster than Secretariat’s final quarter when he won the 1973 Belmont in the final time of 2:24 flat and smashed Gallant Man’s track record by 2 3/5 seconds. In Secretariat’s fabulous 31-length Belmont victory, he was clocked running the final quarter in :25 flat.

Essential Quality was credited with a 109 Beyer for his win in the Belmont.

To put Essential Quality’s 109 Beyer into historical context, it was the highest figure by a Belmont winner since Empire Maker in 2003.

Essential Quality recorded a higher Beyer in the Belmont than Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify when they took the 1 1/2-mile classic.

American Pharoah’s Beyer when he won the Belmont was a 105. When Justify won the Belmont, his Beyer was a 101.

In fact, Essential Quality’s 109 Beyer is higher than the figures recorded by American Pharoah and Justify in any of their Triple Crown wins.

The American Racing Manual, now digital only and available for free on The Jockey Club’s website, lists Beyer Speed Figures for Belmont winners going as far back as 1990.

Point Given won the 2001 Belmont by 12 1/4 lengths. His 114 Beyer for that race has the distinction of being the highest figure for the Belmont.

The Beyers of 107 or higher for Belmont winners are listed below:

BSF Belmont Winner (Year)

114 Point Given (2001)
111 A.P. Indy (1992)
111 Hansel (1991)
111 Go and Go (1990)
110 Empire Maker
110 Victory Gallop (1998)
110 Touch Gold (1997)
109 Essential Quality (2021)
109 Lemon Drop Kid (1999)
107 Rags to Riches (2007)

1. FLIGHTLINE in Santa Anita’s Grade I Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs on dirt Dec. 26. (Owned by Hronis Racing, Siena Farm, Summer Wind Equine, West Point Thoroughbreds and Woodford Racing; trained by John Sadler; ridden by Flavien Prat; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Tapit colt.)

Unraced at two, Flightline made three starts at the age of 3 in 2021. No matter the class level, the $1 million auction purchase won by a gaudy margin. In all three of his victories, this gifted equine athlete treated his opponents with similar disdain. All three times, he turned what was supposed to have been a race into a joke. You might say all three of his victories were laughers.

Not only were Flightline’s final times and speed figures praiseworthy, he won his three races while expending so little effort that one could not help wondering just how fast he would have gone if his rider, Flavien Prat, had asked him for his absolute best, which of course turned out to be not even remotely necessary.

Facing maidens when unveiled at Santa Anita on April 24, Flightline completed six furlongs in 1:08.75. He found himself 13 1/4 lengths in front at the finish and received a 105 Beyer Speed Figure.

When next seen under silks against allowance/optional claiming company at Del Mar on Sept. 5, Flightline ran even faster. Again, he was all alone at the finish. Completing six furlongs in 1:08.05, he won by 12 3/4 length win and recorded a 114 Beyer Speed Figure. The 114 matched the top Beyer of the year up to that point. The day before Flightline’s Del Mar tour de force, Baby Yoda likewise logged a 114 Beyer when he won a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race by 4 1/4 lengths at Saratoga.

These two 114 Beyer earners, Flightline and Baby Yoda, started in Santa Anita’s Grade I Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs on Dec. 26.

Once again, it was Flightline first and the rest nowhere.

Flightline won the Malibu by 11 1/2 lengths. Even though he just sauntered home, his final time was 1:21.37. According to Prat, Flightline “was in cruise control the whole way, galloping freely.”

The 1:21.37 clocking was more than three seconds (three seconds!) faster than Kalypso’s 1:24.78 when she won Santa Anita’s Grade I La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 4 3/4 lengths at the same distance earlier in the afternoon.

Flightline’s six-furlong fractional time in the Malibu was 1:08.72. That meant that in each of his three of his 2021 races, he zipped six furlongs in 1:08 and change, which was itself a remarkable feat.

On the Beyer scale, Flightline’s Malibu figure skyrocketed to a 118. It was the top Beyer Speed Figure recorded by any horse during the entire year.

Below are the best nine Beyer Speed Figures of 2021:

BSF Horse (Race, Track, Date)

118 Flightline (Malibu, Santa Anita, Dec. 26)
114 Flightline (alw/opt claimer, Del Mar, Sept. 4)
114 Baby Yoda (allowance, Saratoga, Sept. 4)
113 Knicks Go (Cornhusker Hcp, Prairie Meadows, July 2)
112 Knicks Go (BC Classic, Del Mar, Nov. 6)
111 Hot Rod Charlie (Pennsylvania Derby, Parx, Sept. 25)
111 Knicks Go (Whitney, Saratoga, Aug. 7)
110 Jackie’s Warrior (Gallant Bob, Parx, Sept. 25)
110 Walton Street (Canadian International, Woodbine, Sept. 18)

Not only did Flightline become just the sixth horse since 2004 to post three triple-digit Beyers in their first three career starts, his average Beyer of 112.33 for the three races is the best of the six horses (Flightline 112.33, Discreet Cat 111.00, Roman Threat 105.67, Lost in the Fog 104.67, Atreides 104.00 and Justify 104.00). Ed DeRosa wrote that for horseracingnation.com.

Flightline recorded the highest Beyer Speed Figure by a Malibu winner going back to 1991, the first year that Beyers for this race are listed in the American Racing Manual. The previous top Beyer by a Malibu winner going back to 1991 had been Powis’ Castle’s 113 in 1994.

To further put Flightline’s Malibu performance in perspective from a speed figure standpoint, Craig Mikowski tweeted that Flightline’s 141 was the top TimeformUS Speed Figure of 2021.

Below are the best eight TimeformUS Speed Figures of 2021:

Fig Horse (Race, Track, Date)

141 Flightline (Malibu, Santa Anita, Dec. 26)
136 Knicks Go (Cornhusker Hcp, Prairie Meadows, July 2)
135 Flightline (alw/opt claimer, Del Mar, Sept. 4)
135 Life Is Good (H. Allen Jerkens, Saratoga, Aug. 28)
133 Knicks Go (BC Classic, Del Mar, Nov. 6)
133 Hot Rod Charlie (Pennsylvania Derby, Parx, Sept. 25)
133 Knicks Go (Pegasus World Cup, Gulfstream, Jan. 23)
132 Jackie’s Warrior (H. Allen Jerkens, Saratoga, Aug. 28)

Flightline’s 141 Malibu also is tied for the second-best figure going all the way back to the debut of TimeformUS Speed Figures in 2013, exceeded only by Gun Runner’s 142 for his 10 1/4-length romp in the 2017 edition of the Grade I Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.

Below are the 10 best TimeformUS Speed Figures going back to 2013:

Fig Horse (Race, Track, Date)

142 Gun Runner (Woodward, Saratoga, Sept. 2, 2017)
141 Flightline (Malibu, Santa Anita, Dec. 26, 2021)
141 Gun Runner (Pegasus World Cup, Gulfstream, Jan. 27, 2018)
140 Gun Runner (BC Classic, Del Mar, Nov. 4, 2017)
140 Game On Dude (Santa Anita Handicap, March 2, 2013)
139 Gun Runner (Stephen Foster H., Churchill Downs, June 17, 2017)
139 Arrogate (Pegasus World Cup, Gulfstream, Jan. 28, 2017)
139 Arrogate (BC Classic, Santa Anita, Nov. 5, 2016)
139 California Chrome (BC Classic, Santa Anita, Nov. 5, 2016)
138 Game On Dude (Pacific Classic, Del Mar, Aug. 25, 2013)

Before the Malibu, co-owner Kosta Hronis of Hronis Racing said to BloodHorse’s Lauren Gash: “Flightline, he’s not our horse; I think he’s going to be America’s horse.”

After the Malibu, Sadler said to Ed Golden in the Santa Anita stable notes: “All has to go right, but we might be looking at a historic-type horse before it’s all over.”

Sadler compared training Flightline at this stage to being basketball superstar LeBron James’ high school basketball coach.

Not surprisingly, Flightline’s exhibition of sheer poetry in motion in the Malibu elicited rave reviews. There were Twitter tributes by the likes of:

--Broadcaster Britney Eurton (Flightline = Freak. “That gave me goosebumps” -- Flavien Prat. Us too…Us too!)

--New York broadcaster Andy Serling (Flightline gallops home in 1:21.37 in his expected Malibu triumph. That’s 3.42 seconds faster than the La Brea. He is an absolute monster. Maybe better than advertised. Wow!)

--David Aragona, my morning-line oddsmaker counterpart at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga (Flightline possesses the sort of talent we’ve seen only a handful of times over the past few decades. I just hope he stays healthy so we get to see him strut his stuff in even more prestigious races next year.)

--Churchill Downs track announcer Travis Stone (I’m trying to think of a more powerful and impressive performance and keep going all the way back to Ghostzapper. It’s high praise but what Flightline just did is worthy of it. Wow!)

--1stbet.com analyst and handicapper Jeff Siegel (Fortunate to have seen in person Buckpasser win the Malibu in 1966, Damascus in ’68 and Spectacular Bid in 1980. All became Horse of the Year. Flightline has that type of talent but there’s still plenty of work to be done. With @johnsadler in charge, he’ll have his chance)

The highly respected Siegel further discussed Flightline and his Malibu after the race for 1stbet.com: “Flightline may have earned a historic 118 Beyer Speed Figure in his Malibu demolition, but what isn’t part of the equation is that he was taken in hand outside the furlong pole and allowed to coast home, meaning the fig tells only what he did, not what he could have done.

“Often times you’ll see a jockey take hold of his mount that is far in front approaching the wire and give the impression the horse could have won by a few extra lengths if ridden out, but that’s not usually the case, as most of the time the horse is pretty much doing his best anyway. But not Flightline, not in any of his three races to date. There is really no telling how much more he really had in reserve last Sunday, but take a look at the tape of the Malibu and watch him gallop out. Despite being geared down pretty much the length of the lane, he continued to lengthen on his rivals and must have been 20 lengths ahead before reaching the clubhouse turn.”

Added Siegel: “Flightline is naturally fast, but he’s such an exceptional athlete with a fluid, easy, effortless stride that he is certain to be able to carry his speed farther, and in fact may be even more devastating as the distances increase. Chew on that for a minute.”

I think one of the highest compliments paid to Flightline regarding his performance in the Malibu came from Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who won the Triple Crown with both American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018).

Flightline “looked like Pharoah coming down the lane,” Baffert told me. “Same stride.”

And so it is that Flightline’s breathtaking Malibu victory occupies the top spot on my list of the best performances by a Thoroughbred in this country during 2021.

You can view the 2021 Malibu on YouTube (Frank Mirahmadi has the call): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVegohNKw3k

Below are my top performances of the year going back to 2004:

2021 Flightline in the Grade I Malibu Stakes
2020 Swiss Skydiver in the Grade I Preakness Stakes
2019 City of Light in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup
2018 Justify in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2017 Gun Runner in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2016 Arrogate in the Grade I Travers Stakes
2015 American Pharoah in the Grade I Belmont Stakes
2014 Wise Dan in the Grade II Bernard Baruch Handicap
2013 Dreaming of Julia in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks
2012 I’ll Have Another in the Grade I Preakness
2011 Animal Kingdom in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2010 Blame in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2009 Zenyatta in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2008 Big Brown in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2007 Rags to Riches in the Grade I Belmont Stakes
2006 Barbaro in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2005 Afleet Alex in the Grade I Preakness Stakes
2004 Ghostzapper in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic