by Jon White
June 16, 2022
Flightline stole the show on an entertaining day of racing with a marvelous performance in the Metropolitan Handicap that overshadowed Mo Donegal’s three-length victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Making a $2.90 win mutuel look like a humongous overlay, Flightline won this venerable Grade I event by six emphatic lengths against by far the best group he has faced. This superstar is managing to make a $1 million purchase price look more and more like a steal.
Speaking of superstars, Europe’s Baaeed extended his undefeated winning streak to eight in England on Tuesday for trainer William Haggas. The Sea the Stars colt defeated six overmatched adversaries in the Group I Queen Anne Stakes on opening day at Royal Ascot. An overwhelming 1-10 favorite in American wagering, Baaeed made this his fourth consecutive Group I victory.
Whereas Flightline’s margin of victory in the Met Mile was six lengths, Baaeed prevailed by 1 3/4 lengths. But that 1 3/4-length margin is quite deceptive in that it does not come anywhere close to accurately reflecting how Baaeed actually towered over his opponents. Jockey Jim Crowley urged Baaeed very little, asking the outstanding 4-year-old for just enough to assure that they would reach the winning post in front.
“It doesn’t get any easier than that,” Crowley said. “I was always in control. It’s a long season and there’s no need to go and do it by 10 lengths.”
As for Flightline, he pummeled four Met Mile foes even though he was returning from a long layoff and despite encountering some early adversity after a sluggish start, a development that nearly had his trainer lose his lunch. Not only did Flightline win by a half-dozen lengths after making the long trip to New York for his first race away from his home in California, the Met Mile was the first time that he had been asked to race farther than seven furlongs.
This certainly was a splendid training job on the part of John Sadler, who had Flightline honed to produce such an impressive victory in this June 11 affair. Flightline was making his first start since winning Santa Anita’s Malibu Stakes by a block last Dec. 26 for owners Hronis Racing, Siena Farm, Summer Wind Equine, West Point Thoroughbreds and Woodford Racing.
Before -- I repeat, before -- the Malibu, Kosta Hronis made it clear that he was expecting to see Flightline become a big shot on this country’s racing stage. He told BloodHorse’s Lauren Gash: “Flightline, he’s not our horse, I think he’s going to be America’s horse.”
That was quite a statement in view of the fact that Flightline had not even run in a stakes race yet.
Hronis certainly did not have to eat his words. Flightline went out and won the Malibu by a large margin in fast time. After the Malibu, Sadler said training the Tapit colt was like being LeBron James’ high school basketball coach.
Flightline really slam-dunked his competition last Saturday.
I was exchanging texts with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert one day early this year when he volunteered that he felt that Flightline “looked like Pharoah coming down the lane” in the Malibu. Of course, Baffert was referring to the horse he won the 2015 Triple Crown with, American Pharoah.
David Aragona, my morning-line oddsmaker counterpart at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga, tweeted after the Malibu: “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 in 2022.”
Aragona did indeed get to see Flightline strut his stuff last Saturday in a prestigious race right there in New York, a race called the Met Mile.
Flightline, with regular rider Flavien Prat in the saddle, began from post one last Saturday. When the starter pushed the button, the big favorite appeared in big trouble about as quickly as you can say Flightline. This was Belmont Park track announcer John Imbriale’s call of the early action:
“And they’re off, and it was a slow start for Flightline! He is quickly moving up now on the inside of Speaker’s Corner, and Flightline had to steady there! Flightline had to steady! Speaker’s Corner has the lead. On the outside is Happy Saver. Now Flightline is coming on through. And Flightline is going up to challenge Speaker’s Corner for the lead. Speaker’s Corner is in front here by a length. Flightline runs in second. Happy Saver is next in third. And at the back Aloha West and Informative. The opening quarter-mile in twenty-two and three-fifth seconds.”
How did Sadler feel about Flightline’s situation after the tardy start?
“When I saw him behind early, I wanted to throw up on myself,” the veteran conditioner said.
Junior Alvarado was aboard Speaker’s Corner in the Met Mile. Speaker’s Corner was off a sparkling 4 1/2-length win in the Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct, a race in which he posted a 114 Beyer, the highest figure of 2022 thus far. Flightline had recorded a whopping 118 Beyer in the Malibu, the biggest Beyer during all of 2021.
Most viewed Speaker’s Corner as the biggest threat to Flightline in the Met Mile. Speaker’s Corner was the 5-2 second choice in the wagering.
One really can’t blame Alvarado for angling over to the inside rail once Flightline’s slow start opened the door for Alvarado to do so. What Alvarado did was fair and square. It’s called race-riding. Without committing a foul, Alvarado did his job by making it tough on Flightline.
Prat also did his job well on Flightline by not panicking.
“That’s what you’re exposed to on the rail [at the start],” said Terry Finley, founder, president and CEO of West Point Thoroughbreds. “That was not the best-case [scenario]. I knew that Junior Alvarado had his eye on us. He did a good job. He dropped over very quickly. I think he tried to set a trap for Flavien. And he did, but the trap dissipated.”
After the first quarter, Prat had Flightline running smoothly in stalk mode while racing about 1 1/2 lengths off the pacesetting Speaker’s Corner. On the far turn Flightline advanced steadily to take on Speaker’s Corner in earnest. These two were for the lead at the five-sixteenths pole, with Flightline racing outside Speaker’s Corner.
“And now the matchup is joined here,” said Imbriole. “It’s Flightline on the outside, Speaker’s Corner on the inside. It’s West against East.”
Well, the “matchup” was short-lived. Turning for home, Flightline put away Speaker’s Corner to reach the top of the stretch with a lead of about two lengths. At that point, for all intents and purposes, the 2022 Met Mile was over.
The East vs. West battle lasted “for about six strides” Finley said with a laugh.
Flightline bounded away in upper stretch to reach the eighth pole sparting a 4 1/2-length cushion with a good deal of gas (an expensive commodity these days) still in his tank. He extended his advantage in the final furlong to reach the finish six lengths in front.
Grade I winners Speaker’s Corner, Happy Saver and Aloha West were no match for Flightline, who added this Grade I tour to de force to his jaw-dropping Grade I Malibu win. Among those left in Flightline’s wake last Saturday besides the razor-sharp Speaker’s Corner was a Jockey Club Gold Cup winner in Happy Saver and a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner in Aloha West.
The complete superiority exhibited by Flightline in his four career starts to date is borne out by the fact that his six-length Met Mile victory has been his closest call to date. He has won his four races by 13 1/4, 12 3/4, 11 1/2 and 6 lengths. That’s an average winning margin of 8 lengths.
For me, Flightline’s four-race winning streak brings to mind the brilliant but ill-fated Seattle Slew filly Landaluce, who in 1982 won her first four races by 7, 21, 6 1/2 and 10 lengths. That’s an average winning margin of 11 lengths. No wonder Landaluce was drawing comparisons to the legendary Ruffian.
In Landaluce’s fifth start, she won the Grade I Oak Leaf Stakes by two lengths. Sadly, the Oak Leaf turned out to be her final race. On Nov. 28, 1982, the same day that she had been expected to win the Grade I $518,850 Hollywood Starlet Stakes, Landaluce died from a severe bacterial infection.
Landaluce was posthumously honored with a 1982 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly. There has never been a 2-year-old filly Horse of the Year. Landaluce received considerable Horse of the Year support in 1982, but she lost out to Met Mile and Belmont Stakes winner Conquistador Cielo.
Back when I was covering Landaluce in 1982 as a writer for the Daily Racing Form, she pretty much exhausted the superlatives in trying to describe her and her races. Now Flightline is doing likewise 40 years later.
Speaking of Landaluce, a book called “Landaluce: The Story of Seattle Slew’s First Champion,” written by Mary Perdue, goes on sale soon on July 2. It can be pre-ordered on the Amazon.com website. (Full disclosure, I wrote the foreword.)
ANOTHER TRIPLE-DIGIT BEYER SPEED FIGURE
Andy Beyer, father of the Beyer Speed Figures, said that he believes that Flightline “has the potential to be an all-time great” when talking Monday with Steve Byk on his SiriusXM radio program At the Races.
“I thought that even with only one stakes race [victory], he should have been the champion 3-year-old last year,” Beyer said. “I mean look at what he did last year, three races with 105, 114 and 118 figures, and he wins them all by double digits.
“But as great as he was last year, I thought he really enhanced his reputation on Saturday. Think about what he was being asked to accomplish. He had a setback so he’s coming off a 5 1/2-month layoff. He’s stretching out to a mile, which he’s never run before. And he happens to be facing the best older horse in the country [Speaker’s Corner]. And then on top of that, he doesn’t break. He has an imperfect trip. He had to steady a little behind Speaker’s Corner and still blows him away, wins by six and runs a figure of 112. I mean, what more can he do?
“You know, after this race, I was trying to put him into proper historical perspective. I said, ‘Complete this sentence: Flightline is the best American horse since blank.’ This may be a premature judgment, but I’m filling in the blank with Ghostzapper.”
Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, who died in 2009, told me on more than one occasion that the best horse he had ever trained was Ghostzapper.
Ghostzapper won nine of 11 lifetime starts. He was voted 2004 Horse of the Year on the heels of his Breeders’ Cup Classic victory at Lone Star Park, a race in which he recorded a 124 Beyer Speed Figure, highest of his career. That 124 figure ties Sunday Silence for the top Beyer ever recorded by a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.
In Ghostzapper’s only 2005 start and the final race of his career, he won the Met Mile by 6 1/4 lengths in 1:33.29. Flightline’s performance in this year’s Met Mile was quite similar. He won by six lengths in 1:33.59.
Interestingly, even though Ghostzapper and Flightline both won the Met Mile in 1:33 and change, there is a sizable difference in the Beyer Speed Figure they each received for that race. Ghostzapper posted a 122 Beyer. Flightline was credited with a 112.
Ghostzapper ranks No. 12 on my list of the Top 25 Racehorses of the 21st Century so far to have raced in North America. Above him are No. 1 American Pharoah, No. 2 Zenyatta, No. 3 Justify, No. 4 Curlin, No. 5 Arrogate, No. 6 Shared Belief, No. 7 California Chrome, No. 8 Rachel Alexandra, No. 9 Barbaro, No. 10 Tiznow and No. 11 Wise Dan.
NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL HAS NEW NO. 1
As a result of Flightline’s brilliant Met Mile performance, he catapulted to the top of this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll after being No. 10 last week.
The Top 10 on the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll this week is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 335 Flightline (25)
2. 255 Country Grammer (8)
3. 239 Life Is Good
4. 229 Jackie’s Warrior
5. 148 Hot Rod Charlie
6. 139 Olympiad (1)
7. 96 Letruska
8. 94 Clairiere
9. 85 Golden Pal (1)
10. 80 Speaker’s Corner
MO DONEGAL TOPS FINAL THREE-YEAR-OLD POLL
On the strength of Mo Donegal’s clear-cut victory in last Saturday’s Grade I Belmont Stakes, he moved into the No. 1 spot in the final NTRA Top Three-Year-Old of 2022. This poll is conducted from early in the year through the final race in the Triple Crown.
The final 2022 NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 322 Mo Donegal (18)
2. 287 Early Voting (3)
3. 281 Epicenter (7)
3. 281 Jack Christopher (7)
5. 170 Zandon
6. 157 Rich Strike
7. 140 Nest
8. 129 Secret Oath
9. 31 Simplification
9.. 31 Taiba
Others receiving votes: Cyberknife (18 points), Matareya (15), We the People (15), Creative Minister (13), White Abarrio (13), Skippylongstocking (7), Conagher (3), Emmanuel (3), Ethereal Road (2), Messier (2), Charge It (1), Un Ojo (1), Smile Happy (1).
Smile Happy has just a single point in the final poll. In the first poll of 2022 back on Feb. 28, Smile Happy had 169 points. He ranked No. 2. Epicenter was No. 1 with 254 points.
That Feb. 28 poll took place after Smile Happy had finished second as the 2-1 favorite to Epicenter in Fair Grounds’ Grade II Risen Star Stakes earlier in the month on Feb. 19.
After the Risen Star, Smile Happy ran second to Zandon in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, then finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby.
Mo Donegal’s 61 points put him No. 10 in the Feb. 28 poll.
PLETCHER EXACTA IN THE BELMONT
On April 9, Mo Donegal won Aqueduct’s Grade II Wood Memorial by a neck when he ran down Early Voting in the final yards. Early Voting subsequently won the Grade I Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 21.
Following the Wood, Mo Donegal finished fifth in the Run for the Roses, then skipped the Preakness. He was not the morning-line favorite in the Belmont Stakes, but horseplayers backed Mo Donegal to the tune of 5-2 favoritism and he got the job done to make it three different winners in the three Triple Crown races this year.
Nest, a filly, finished second in the Belmont at 5-1. It was admirable effort on her part after she stumbled at the start and got bumped in the initial strides. Nest’s sire, Curlin, also finished second in the Belmont, which he lost by a head to the filly Rags to Riches.
By the way, Nest recorded a career-best 95 Beyer Speed Figure for her runner-up finish in the Belmont. Ironically, another filly, Secret Oath, likewise registered a career-best 95 Beyer when she finished fourth in this year’s Preakness.
Skippylongstocking finished third in this year’s edition of the Belmont Stakes at 11-1. We the People, the 2-1 morning-line favorite, ended up fourth as the 7-2 second choice in the betting. Rich Strike, who won the Grade I Kentucky Derby in an 80-1 shocker, trailed early, never threatened and finished sixth at odds of 4-1.
Why didn’t Rich Strike win the Belmont? I think I might know why. At the barn leading up to the race, they had been playing Frank Sinatra’s version of the song “New York, New York” to get Rich Strike accustomed to it on race day. I think Rich Strike was thrown for a loop when he heard someone else other than Ol’ Blue Eyes singing the song.
Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher trains both Mo Donegal and Nest. The $1 Pletcher exacta paid $13.80. It also was a brothers Ortiz exacta, as Irad Jr. rode Mo Donegal and Jose piloted Nest.
This year’s Belmont also was a Mike Repole exacta. He and Donegal Racing are co-owners of Mo Donegal. Repole also is involved in Nest’s ownership partnership.
This was Repole’s first Belmont Stakes victory. It meant a great deal to the native New Yorker (and huge Mets fan, as evidenced the colors of his silks). Repole raced Mo Donegal’s sire, Uncle Mo, who was voted a 2010 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. Uncle Mo is a son of Indian Charlie, winner of the Grade I Santa Anita Derby in 1998. Baffert trained Indian Charlie, whose only defeat in five career starts came when he finished third as the 5-2 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, a race won by the Baffert-trained Real Quiet.
It also was a breeder’s exacta in this year’s Belmont Stakes. Ashview Farm and Colts Neck Stable bred both Mo Donegal and Nest in Kentucky.
This was Pletcher’s fourth Belmont Stakes victory, following Rags to Riches in 2007, Palace Malice in 2013 and Tapwrit in 2017.
Nest provided Pletcher with his seventh runner-up finish in the Test of the Champion. The others were Bluegrass Cat in 2006, Dunkirk in 2009, Stay Thirsty in 2011, Commissioner in 2014, Destin in 2016 and Dr Post in 2020.
With a different winner in this year’s Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, there is no clear current leader in terms of the 2022 Eclipse Award for 3-year-old male. No doubt such Grade I races as the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 23, Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 27 and Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing on Sept. 24 will have much to do with who ends up getting the Eclipse Award in this division.
BELMONT FIGURE NOTHING TO RAVE ABOUT
Mo Donegal completed his 1 1/2-mile journey last Saturday in 2:28.28. While Flightline recorded a 112 Beyer Speed Figure for his Met Mile win earlier on the card, Mo Donegal received just a 98 Beyer for his Belmont Stakes victory, though this was his highest Beyer yet in seven career starts.
The Beyers for winners of the Belmont going back to 1990 are listed below:
2022 Mo Donegal (98)
2021 Essential Quality (109)
2020 Tiz the Law (100)*
2019 Sir Winston (95)
2018 Justify (101)
2017 Tapwrit (103)
2016 Creator (99)
2015 American Pharoah (105)
2014 Tonalist (100)
2013 Palace Malice (98)
2012 Union Rags (96)
2011 Ruler On Ice (100)
2010 Drosselmeyer (94)
2009 Summer Bird (100)
2008 Da’ Tara (99)
2007 Rags to Riches (107)
2006 Jazil (102)
2005 Afleet Alex (106)
2004 Birdstone (101)
2003 Empire Maker (110)
2002 Sarava (105)
2001 Point Given (114)
2000 Commendable (101)
1999 Lemon Drop Kid (109)
1998 Victory Gallop (110)
1997 Touch Gold (110)
1996 Editor’s Note (106)
1995 Thunder Gulch (101)
1994 Tabasco Cat (106)
1993 Colonial Affair (104)
1992 A.P. Indy (111)
1991 Hansel (111)
1990 Go and Go (111)
*Run at 1 1/8 miles
Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont predates published Beyer Speed Figures. Andy Beyer once wrote that he retroactively calculated what Secretariat’s Beyer Speed Figure would have been for the Belmont. It would have been a 139.