It’s been 69 days since Flightline clinched Horse of the Year honors with his tour de force in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and trainer John Sadler still marvels at his horse’s brilliance.
Earlier this week, while preparing for a trip to London to accept the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Award on behalf of Flightline, Sadler made perhaps his strongest statement yet regarding the son of Tapit.
The 66-year-old Long Beach native, who knows a thing or two about great equine athletes, said there’s not a horse present or in history that would have beaten Flightline in last summer’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar when he romped home by a race-record 19¼ lengths and would have eclipsed Candy Ride’s record time of 1: 59.11 for the mile and a quarter if jockey Flavien Prat hadn’t put away his stick long before the wire.
“I don’t think any horse in the world would have beat him on that day,” Sadler said during an interview with the Southern California News Group. “(Even) Secretariat. If you pick one race and you said, ‘OK let’s put Secretariat in there, Spectacular Bid and the other great ones’ on that given day … he was eased up. It was over at the quarter pole. I just think he was so sharp that day, and you could tell by the 126 Beyer (speed figure). It was a phenomenal performance on all the metrics. He wasn’t even asked hard in the race and I just thought he was in such great shape for that day. It was just such a rare, rare … you’re not going to see a race like that again.”
Flightline won all six starts of his career by a combined 71 lengths. No horse came closer to him than six lengths. Prat never had to ask him. How great was he? Because of the economics of the breeding game, we’ll never find out how great, but Sadler says he could have set track records every time he ran, much like Secretariat did in all three of his Triple Crown victories.
“There were a couple of discussions where we were, ‘Do you want him to run a little harder to set track records?’” Sadler said. “But then, I just don’t think that’s the way to go. He could have set a track record every time he ran. But the focus was to have the horse ready in championship form and keeping him happy and healthy.”
If that was the case, then mission accomplished. He was happy, healthy and in championship form off a six-month layoff when he won the Met Mile at Belmont Park by six lengths last June. If he hadn’t encountered trouble, it would have been more. No horse was ever able to run with Flightline.
But despite his brilliance, there are at least two Eclipse Award voters who refused to vote for Flightline as Horse of the Year because he ran only three times in 2022, the fewest by a Horse of the Year since the current Eclipse Awards format was established in 1971. Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year, raced only four times.
That makes no difference to Sadler. He’s not bothered by the fact his generational champion will not be a unanimous Horse of the Year when the award is given out on Jan. 26 in Florida.
“Everybody has their opinion and I respect everybody’s voice,” he said. “But I have to look at who would you vote for (if not Flightline)? Some horse that he trounced? He was clearly the best race horse and I don’t think anybody will deny that. They (voters) can do whatever they want. But I was thinking about this lately, and he had some little mistimings like the little sore hock and it just didn’t work out for more (races). And the other thing you gotta remember is that Flightline didn’t need preps. He didn’t practice. He just needed to be himself and go over for the biggest races like the Met Mile, Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Maybe I could have run in the San Diego Handicap, but what does that prove? He was there for the biggest races and he never ducked another horse.”
Then there’s the question of Flightline’s ranking among the sport’s all-time best. He’s in my Top Five (in no particular order) with Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Ruffian and Zenyatta. But Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott is on record as saying Flightline is not on his list of all-time greats because he didn’t pass the test of time.
“First of all, there’s a change in environment,” Sadler said. “Other greats could run on a lot of medications. We’re running medication-free in 2023. And it’s hard to compare horses from different generations. You can’t compare Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter or somebody like that. It’s different eras. They’re all great. The greats are the greats. To me, (Flightline) is one of the greats.”
Asked how life is after Flightline, Sadler laughed and said, “I’ve been busy trying to fill that hole.”
Told that it’s a mighty large hole, he said, “That’s why I’m so busy. I’ve got my work cut out for me. You can’t fill it with one horse.”
Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73