There’s something about the human condition that often leads us to compare something we’ve just experienced to what’s familiar from our past. Whether we’re discovering a new food (“This tastes just like chicken.”), a new location (“This reminds me of home.”) or meeting someone new (“A lot nicer than my ex.”).
The desire to find comparisons that help us better understand the present is strong.
For next weekend’s Breeders’ Cup in Lexington, Kentucky, an imposing 4-year-old named Flightline is the one horse fans have seen too little of but want to experience with the belief he’ll deliver another amazing performance worthy of heady comparisons.
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“It exceeded expectations,” Flightline’s trainer John Sadler proudly recalled about his undefeated horse’s last race. “Because until a horse does a thing, they don’t know exactly how it’s going to go. It’s like when Tom Brady plays, they expect him to be great.”
Sadler then likened the experience of training Flightline to another human superstar.
“With a horse like this, you’ve got to be a good steward. You know, if you have Michael Jordan, you don’t necessarily have to coach him up, but you’ve got to be a good steward.”
August’s Pacific Classic was described as the most impressive race in the 85-year history of Del Mar racetrack by longtime racing reporter Jay Privman, who then offered his own comparison to a racing legend.
“Was this the best horse since — and then fill in the blank? And for a lot of people — myself included — Spectacular Bid is the best horse I’ve seen live.”
The Daily Racing Form’s speed rating calculation determined Flightline’s performance was the second highest over the past 30 years. In others words, in the million or so races run at tracks across the continent over the past three decades, over different speeds, distances and surfaces, only one other horse had recorded a more impressive effort.
“These horses just appear every 20 years or so,” Sadler observed. “He’s just a rare individual. He’s just a great horse.”
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was far, far behind Flightline in the Pacific Classic. Yes, Smith finished third in the race but was so far behind Flightline he needed a Biblical comparison.
“I mean, just watch him walk out here. He looks like Samson walking out with that long hair and that build that he has,” said Smith, who then paused and chuckled to reflect on his assessment. “Yeah, that’s probably a pretty good name for him.”
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Flightline was always supposed to be a winner. His multiple owners comprise a collection of well-known players in the horse racing industry who came together to buy him at auction for $1 million.
While million-dollar horses aren’t commonplace around the track, there have been enough of them over the years that history shows many don’t come close to winning back their eye-popping price tags.
Flightline had a deep gash to his backside from a barn accident soon after he turned 2 years old, but it could have been much worse.
The injury was severe enough to delay the start of his career and dash any hopes his human handlers had for Triple Crown glory. Once Flightline made it to the track, he delivered one sensational race — with a lot of rest in between — after another. He won five in all, culminating with the win at Del Mar amid speculation that his upcoming race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic — only his sixth ever — will be his last.
“It just wasn’t in the cards,” Sadler told Fox News earlier this month after watching another “perfect” workout.
“Small things that had set him back along the way. Every horse is different. We would have loved to run him more.”
Flightline’s astonishing but sporadic career helps explain why his brilliance — seen by so few — remains largely unknown beyond the racing world.
For Privman, even though Flightline’s Pacific Classic was reminiscent of the best horse he ever saw, he says a true comparison between Flightline and Spectacular Bid is impossible.
“Horses become folk heroes more often by longevity or Triple Crown success, and unfortunately he’s not had either of those,” Privman said.
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Perhaps the best examples of those differences come from the fact that about a half dozen horses are likely to race against Flightline next Saturday. Spectacular Bid, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, finished his 30-race career in a race that no other horse showed up for. He won by default.