Flightline Retires: Breeders Cup Victory Was The Last Race For The Brilliant Horse
After Flightline’s devastating Breeders’ Cup Classic win, many fans wondered aloud: “Who could beat him?”
Many imagine Flightline touring the sport’s international stage, hitting the top races on other continents.
Would Flightline handle the sands of Saudi Arabia? The dunes of Dubai? The rolling acreage of Royal Ascot?
The arguments were moot. The day after the Breeders’ Cup, Flightline’s connections announced his retirement, so you will not be able to see him on the contenders list when you bet on the horses competing in main events.
His record will forever stand as it is today.
Six starts. Six wins. Infinite questions.
The arguments now center not on how Flightline might one day be beaten, but rather on his place in history. Does Flightline deserve to be mentioned alongside some of the all-time greats?
Let’s compare his body of work to horses with similar accomplishments.
Keeneland’s Breeders’ Cup Classic Winners:
Authentic, the winner of the 2020 Classic, will forever be connected to the strange racing configuration that Covid-19 left us with. He will likely remain the only Kentucky Derby winner who prepped for the Derby by winning the Travers, and he is the only Classic winner to use the Preakness as a final Classic prep.
As a result, it is really difficult to compare his racing season to any other. In some ways, his 2020 season is the opposite of Flightline’s 2022; the former ran the bulk of his races in the span of a few months, while the latter had multiple long layoffs.
We can more easily compare their Classic runnings, though, as they were held over the same track and distance. Flightline laid off the pace set by Life Is Good and came home in 2:00.06, which is quick, but still slower than the 1:59.6 ticked off by Authentic.
The first Breeders’ Cup renewal at Keeneland featured something no other edition had ever seen: a Triple Crown winner.
It was also, however, the first time a horse had successfully trained up from the Grade I Travers Stakes to the Classic without the benefit of a prep race, or having ever met older horses. Also, Travers provided American Pharoah with an experience Flightline will never know: defeat.
American Pharoah avenged his loss to Keen Ice in the Classic, and conquered older foes, including eventual Eclipse Champion Older Male Honor Code. However, that one loss caused the public’s confidence in his dominance to waver, even if just for a little while. Not so with Flightline, who was such an intimidating presence that trainers deliberately held their charges from competing with him; Brad Cox’s biggest stated reason for taking Cyberknife to the Dirt Mile was “there’s no Flightline.”
Landaluce, Seattle Slew’s first champion, scorched across the racing scene for five brilliant starts before she tragically died of an intestinal virus. She was a filly whose grand performance in Grade II Hollywood Lassie Stakes– a 21 length blowout- earned her comparisons to the immortal Ruffian.
Like Flightline, her margins of victory were extremely impressive; she won her races by an average of over 9 ¼ lengths, and Flightline won his by an average of just under 10 ½. However, while Flightline’s races were stretched over more than a year, Landaluce’s were packed into less than four months. In addition, Flightline raced against open competition comprised of champions and graded stakes winners, while Landaluce ran against mostly unproven two-year-old fillies. Whether she would have maintained her dominance as the competitors improved, we will sadly never know.
Unlike the other champions on this list, Personal Ensign held her unbeaten status over multiple years.
Granted, her seasons at two and three were cut off by injury, but she showed top class both years, winning the Grade I Frizette Stakes at two and the Grade I Beldame Stakes (against older mares) at three. At four, however, she really blossomed: her seven graded stakes wins that year included the Grade I Whitney Stakes against males.
While Flightline is known for his breathtaking victory margins, Personal Ensign is most famous for her final, dramatic, photo-finish victory in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. In all, she completed her career with thirteen wins from thirteen starts- more than twice the streak Flightline has amassed.
Justify is a horse who, like Flightline and Landaluce, will always have fans wondering just how good they really were.
Like Flightline, Justify was unraced at age two. However, unlike Flightline, Justify came to hand very quickly as a three year old and, after winning a maiden and an allowance race in the early spring, he launched his assault on the Triple Crown scene by winning a controversial Grade I Santa Anita Derby, after which he was found to have traces of a banned substance in his system.
The result was allowed to stand, and Justify mowed through the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont to win the 13th Triple Crown.
And then, suddenly, he was reported to have an injury and was retired.
Justify’s win in the Triple Crown is certainly a great accomplishment, and one Flightline will never add to his name.
However, as sacrilegious as some may think this to be, the Triple Crown races are in fact age-restricted races. Justify can never be said to have taken on all comers the way Flightline did, nor did he have to maintain his brilliance over a full season.
In the end, though, comparing Flightline to other champions becomes a comparison of apples to oranges, bananas, blueberries, and watermelon. Instead of being picky, have yourself a fruit salad and honor each of these champions- Flightline included- for their heroic deeds.