The calendar now says it is 2023, which means it’s time for my annual list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the previous year. I have compiled such a list each year for Xpressbet.com going all the way back to the 2004 racing year.
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.
--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.
10. MALATHAAT in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Keeneland at 1 1/8 miles on dirt Nov. 5. (Owned by Shadwell Stable; trained by Todd Pletcher; ridden by John Velazquez; 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Curlin filly.)
Malathaat’s BC Distaff edged out Nest’s 12 1/4-length romp in Saratoga’s Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at 1 1/8 miles on July 23 for the No. 10 spot on this list.
Why did Malathaat’s triumph by a scant nose in the BC Distaff get the nod over Nest’s victory in the CCA Oaks by a sizable margin? In the BC Distaff, Malathaat beat a much stronger field. In fact, Nest was among Malathaat’s victims in the BC Distaff. Secret Oath ran second in the CCA Oaks, but she could finish no better than fifth in the BC Distaff.
Surging in the final yards, Malathaat took the BC Distaff at odds of 5-2 in a furious three-way battle down to the wire involving the top three finishers. Blue Stripe, a 24-1 longshot, ran the race of her life to just miss while nosing out 6-1 Clairiere for second. Nest, a 3-year-old facing her elders, ended up fourth as the 7-5 favorite, 3 1/4 lengths behind Clairiere.
A 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Curlin filly, Malathaat posted a final time of 1:49.07. She recorded a 102 Beyer Speed Figure.
Malathaat was retired after her BC Distaff victory, having won 10 of 14 lifetime starts while earning $3,790,825.
On the strength of Malathaat’s overall 2022 record and due in large measure to her important win in the 2022 BC Distaff, she is favored to be voted an Eclipse Award as the year’s champion older dirt female. She previously was voted a 2021 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.
You can view the 2022 BC Distaff on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call).
9. REBEL’S ROMANCE in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland at 1 1/2 miles on turf Nov. 5. (Owned by Godolphin; trained by Charlie Appleby; ridden by James Doyle; a 4-year-old Irish-bred Dubawi gelding.)
Tenth early in the field of 13, Rebel’s Romance roared home to win going away by 2 1/4 lengths in 2:26.35, which broke the course record. He recorded a 107 Beyer Speed Figure.
This was the fifth straight victory by Rebel’s Romance, who came into the Breeders’ Cup off back-to-back Group I wins in Germany.
I rank Rebel’s Romance’s BC Turf victory as the best grass performance in the U.S. during 2022.
You can view the 2022 BC Turf on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call).
8. TAIBA in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on dirt April 9. (Owned by Zedan Racing Stables; trained by Tim Yakteen; ridden by Mike Smith; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Gun Runner colt.)
“What Taiba did to win the Santa Anita Derby last Saturday, four weeks after a maiden triumph in his career debut, was nothing less than phenomenal,” I wrote in my recap of the race for Xpressbet.com.
Indeed, Taiba became the first horse in the 88-year history of the Santa Anita Derby to win it having raced only once previously.
The day after the Santa Anita Derby, I was quoted as saying this in the track’s stable notes: For Taiba “to win the nine-furlong Sana Anita Derby with only one six-furlong race under his belt is without a doubt one of the greatest accomplishments that I have seen at Santa Anita since my first year here as a Daily Racing Form writer in 1981.”
In terms of second career starts that I’ve seen at a Southern California track in the last four decades, only one other ranks right up there with Taiba’s Santa Anita Derby. That was Landaluce’s sensational 21-length victory in the Grade II Hollywood Lassie Stakes at six furlongs in 1982, just seven days after her debut win in a maiden sprint.
What Justify did to win the 2018 Santa Anita Derby certainly was extraordinary. It was only his third career start. But what Taiba did to win the 2022 Santa Anita Derby in just his second career start was even more extraordinary.
When Taiba trounced maidens on March 5, he showed early zip. After vying for the lead through fractions of :22.26 for the opening quarter and :45.69 for the half, he drew away and won by 7 1/2 lengths. His final time was 1:09.97.
In the Santa Anita Derby, most people envisioned the speedy Forbidden Kingdom setting the early pace. He did. Because both Messier and Taiba reside in the same barn, there were those who surmised that Taiba had been put in the race as a “rabbit,” i.e., someone to hound Forbidden Kingdom early. I didn’t see it that way. Why? Because asking a $1.7 million colt to be a rabbit generally is not done.
And it did turn out that Messier, not Taiba, pressed Forbidden Kingdom and jockey Juan Hernandez through the initial six furlongs. The fractions through that portion of the race were :23.23, :46.66 and 1:10.93.
Turning for home, Messier and Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez took the lead. Taiba, with Hall of Famer Mike Smith aboard, loomed menacingly while three wide. Forbidden Kingdom began to retreat and eventually ended up last.
Messier had a one-length advantage with a furlong to go. Taiba swept to the front in final furlong and won going away by 2 1/4 lengths. Messier held on for second.
Keep in mind, Messier went into the Santa Anita Derby off a 15-length win in Santa Anita’s Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, an effort that produced a 103 Beyer Speed Figure.
According to the original Equibase chart, the fractions and final time for the Santa Anita Derby were :23.23, :46.66, 1:10.93, 1:35.97 and 1:48.67.
The chart subsequently was changed to :22.75, :46.70, 1:10.97, 1:35.86 and 1:48.46.
Taibi initially was given a 101 Beyer Speed Figure. Following the corrected times, the Beyer was upped to 102.
I actually thought that a case could be made that Taiba’s 102 Beyer might have deserved to be a little bit bigger when compared to various past editions of the Santa Anita Derby. Check out these final times and Beyers in which the winner posted a SLOWER final time than Taiba on a fast track, yet received a BIGGER Beyer:
Year -- Final Time (Beyer) Santa Anita Derby Winner
2022 1:48.46 (102) Taiba
2018 1:49.72 (107) Justify
2015 1:48.73 (106) Dortmund
2013 1:48.76 (105) Goldencents
2004 1:49.24 (103) Castledale
2003 1:49.36 (104) Buddy Gil
2000 1:49.08 (109) The Deputy
1999 1:48.92 (108) General Challenge
1997 1:48.81 (104) Cavonnier
1990 1:49.00 (109) Mister Frisky
You can view the 2022 Santa Anita Derby on YouTube (Frank Mirahmadi has the call).
7. EPICENTER in Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Aug. 27. (Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds; trained by Steve Asmussen; ridden by Joel Rosario; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Not This Time colt.)
Without question, this was the finest performance of Epicenter’s career. It was an especially gratifying victory for his fans to see after his frustrating defeats when second in both the Grade I Kentucky Derby and Grade I Preakness Stakes.
In my Travers selections for Xpressbet.com, I picked Epicenter to win despite expressing a concern that his highest Beyer going into that race had been a 102.
“Based on recent history, I think there is a pretty good chance that it will require something bigger than a 102 to win the Travers,” I wrote.
Epicenter did step it up in the Beyer Speed Figure department, registering a career-best 112 in the Travers, which he won with authority by 5 1/4 lengths after racing fourth early in the field of eight. The 112 Beyer Speed Figure by Epicenter on dirt tied with Mind Games’ figure in the Grade I Woodbine Mile on the turf as the top Beyer by a 3-year-old during 2022.
You can view the 2022 Travers on YouTube (John Imbriale has the call).
Sadly, Epicenter’s racing career came to an end when he was pulled up with an injury during the BC Classic at Keeneland on Nov. 5.
6. RICH STRIKE in Churchill Downs’ Grade I Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles on dirt May 7. (Owned by Rick Dawson’s RED TR-Racing; trained by Eric Reed; ridden by Sonny Leon; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Keen Ice colt.)
Talk about a shocker.
Rich Strike pulled off the second-biggest upset in the history of the Kentucky Derby, which is America’s longest continuously run sporting event. His win at odds of 80-1 is topped only by 91-1 Donerail, who prevailed by a half-length and paid $184.90 for a $2 win ticket in 1913.
The 6-5 favorite, Ten Point, ran second in Donerail’s Derby.
The 4-1 favorite, Epicenter, finished second in Rich’s Strike’s Derby.
The odds actually came down on Rich Strike to 80-1 at race time from the 99-1 he was on the board all day Friday in advance wagering and the 99-1 he still was Saturday morning.
A $2 win wager on Rich Strike returned $163.60. He paid $74.20 to place and $29.40 to show.
I was sorry to see that $74.20 place payout, which was a Kentucky Derby record. The record had been $70.00 set by Closing Argument, my top pick in the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Closing Argument lost by just a half-length while finishing second to 50-1 Giacomo. Though it was so disappointing to come that close to picking a 71-1 upset winner of the Kentucky Derby, I always was able to take some solace in that at least he did set the record for the biggest place payout. But now Rich Strike holds that record.
There were a number of other notable aspects to Rich’s Strike’s Kentucky Derby victory.
--No horse had ever previously won the Kentucky Derby after scratching in from the also-eligible list. Rich Strike was able to get into the starting gate after Ethereal Road, who had drawn post 20, was scratched Friday morning, the day before the race. D. Wayne Lukas told racing officials that the reason for scratching Ethereal Road was the Hall of Famer had not been happy with the way in which Ethereal Road had trained Thursday and Friday mornings.
--Rich Strike became the first winner of the Kentucky Derby to have been previously claimed out of a race.
According to BloodHorse’s Avalyn Hunter, “three other future Derby winners ran in claiming races without changing hands: Mine That Bird (2009), who won a $62,00 maiden claimer; Charismatic (1999), who started twice with a $62,500 tag; and Dust Commander (1970), who ran for a $7,500 tag in his second start.
“All four were pricy compared to Apollo (1882) and Elwood (1904). Both ran in selling races (the precursors to modern claiming races) prior to their big days at Churchill Downs and both were offered at less than $1,000. Unlike a claiming race, horses ran in selling races for price tags which were the minimum bids for a post-race auction.”
The way the selling races worked, if no one put a claim in for a horse, then the horses stayed with his or her owner. If one or more people did submit a claim, an auction for the horse was held. The original owner, if they so desired, could even outbid the others to reacquire their horse.
--By scratching in, Rich Strike automatically got the outside post in the field of 20. Only three horses in history have won the Kentucky Derby from a post position higher than 18. They are I’ll Have Another from post 19 in 2012, Big Brown from post 20 in 2008, plus Rich Strike from post 20 in 2022.
--Prior to the Kentucky Derby, Rich Strike had won only once in seven career starts. His lone previous victory had come in a one-mile maiden claiming contest on Sept. 17, 2012, a race on Churchill Downs’ main track that Rich Strike won by 17 1/4 lengths.
In Rich Strike’s only start before his runaway Sept. 17 maiden claiming win, he had finished 10th at 9-2 in a one-mile maiden special weight race on turf Aug. 15 at Ellis Park for owner Calumet Farm and trainer Joe Sharp.
When Rich Strike ran in the Sept. 17 maiden claiming race on dirt, he was 10-1 in the betting. Dawson spent $30,000 to claim him. There were no other claims submitted, which means owner Rick Dawson did not have to win a shake to get Rich Strike.
Around that same time, Dawson and trainer Eric Reed did get outshook for another horse they tried to claim. Although they were thwarted in their attempt to claim that horse, they did manage to get Rich Strike for $30,000. First prize in the Kentucky Derby was $1,860,000.
--The Kentucky Derby was the first stakes victory for Rich Strike and first graded stakes win for his jockey. It’s believed that was the first time in history that a jockey’s initial graded stakes win had come in the Kentucky Derby. As of this writing, the Kentucky Derby remains Rich Strike’s only stakes victory.
--Many in the racing community were pleased to see the 57-year-old Reed win the Kentucky Derby after he had suffered through the devastation of a barn fire in 2016 that swept through his Mercury Equine Training Center in Kentucky, killing 23 horses. Reed very nearly got out of racing after that horrific incident. But he decided to stick with it and now he’s a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer.
Reed once came close to beating mighty Zenyatta with a mare by the name of Rinterval, who was 10-1 in the Grade I Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar in 2010. Zenyatta was an overwhelming 1-10 favorite while seeking to extend her undefeated winning streak to 18. Zenyatta did win the 2010 Hirsch, but by only a neck over Rinterval.
--Last early in the field of 20, Rich Strike received a ride that was a masterpiece on the part of Leon, who made right move after right move while rallying past all 19 foes.
--Helping Rich Strike in his come-from-behind victory was a torrid early pace. After the race, NBC analyst Randy Moss, an expert on the subject of pace, called attention to the early fractions being a scorching :21.78 for the first quarter and :45.36 for the half.
“This is a historically fast, suicidal, radioactive Kentucky Derby pace,” Moss said.
Moss pointed out that :21.78 made it the fastest opening quarter in Kentucky Derby history.
Rich Strike’s final time was 2:02.61. He recorded a 101 Beyer Speed Figure. His previous top Beyer had been only an 84. Rich Strike lost his remaining five 2022 starts, but he proved that his Kentucky Derby win was not a fluke inasmuch as he subsequently posted triple-digit Beyers in the Travers (105), Lukas Classic (101) and BC Classic (106).
--Keen Ice, Rich Strike’s sire, is best remembered for a big upset himself. He ambushed Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga in the summer of 2015. American Pharoah ran second in the Travers at odds of 1-5, his only defeat in eight 2015 starts. American Pharoah lost the Travers by three-quarters of a length to 16-1 Keen Ice, who won just three of 24 starts during his entire career.
--Thanks to Rich Strike, famed Calumet Farm increased the record number of Kentucky Derby winners it has bred to 10.
Billionaire Brad Kelley now is at the Calumet helm. Before Kelley, winners of the Kentucky Derby bred by Calumet while under Warren Wright’s ownership were Whirlaway (1941), Pensive (1944), Citation (1948), Ponder (1949) and Hill Gail (1952). Following Wright’s death, his widow, Lucille, and her subsequent husband Gene Markey ran Calumet and bred Iron Liege (1957), Tim Tam (1958) and Forward Pass (1968). The Wrights’ heirs were in charge of breeding Strike the Gold (1991).
Whirlaway and Citation were Triple Crown winners for Calumet.
You can view the 2022 Kentucky Derby on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call).
5. LIFE IS GOOD in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup at 1 1/8 miles on dirt Jan. 29. (Owned by CHC Inc. and WinStar Farm; trained by Todd Pletcher; ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.; 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt.)
This ranks as high as it does on the list of 2022 performances primarily because Life Is Good went out there and drilled Knicks Go, the 2021 Horse of the Year.
Life Is Good darted immediately to the front, then was two lengths clear after the first quarter, 3 1/2 clear after the half, 4 1/2 ahead after six furlongs, still 4 1/2 in front a furlong out, then won convincingly by 3 1/4 lengths. Knicks Go gave futile chase all the way around the oval and had to settle for second in the final start of his career.
Life Is Good was sent away as the 4-5 favorite. Knicks Go was just slightly higher in the betting at 9-10.
Knicks Go came into the Pegasus off a front-running 2 3/4-length win in the BC Classic at Del Mar on Nov. 6.
Beating Knicks Go to the punch to seize the early lead in the Pegasus was no small feat in itself on the part of Life Is Good. In Knicks Go’s past performances, he had led at the first call in nine consecutive U.S. starts. But at the first call in the Pegasus, Knicks Go was third early, three lengths behind Life Is Good.
Knicks Go had an eight-race winning streak in races around two turns snapped in the Pegasus.
Life Is Good’s final time in the Pegasus was 1:48.91. He received a 110 Beyer Speed Figure.
You can view the 2022 Pegasus World Cup on YouTube (Pete Aiello has the call).
4. CHARGE IT in Belmont Park’s Grade III Dwyer Stakes at one mile on dirt July 2. (Owned by Whisper Hill Farm; trained by Todd Pletcher; ridden by John Velazquez; a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Tapit colt.)
To me, this was the best performance in the U.S. during 2022 by a horse not named Flightline.
You rarely see a horse run like Charge It did in the Dwyer. Racing slightly off the early pace, he poked his head in front midway on the far turn, then expanded his advantage to three lengths at the quarter pole. Charge It’s lead increased to 10 lengths at the eighth pole. He then continued running up the score in a scintillating performance to reach the finish 23 lengths in front as a 3-5 favorite.
In his most recent start going into the Dwyer, Charge It had finished 17th in the Kentucky Derby, an effort that was negatively impacted by a breathing issue.
“We always had a lot of confidence in this horse’s ability,” Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher said in the NYRA stakes quotes after the Dwyer. “We tried to correct the problem from the Derby [displaced palate], which we think we successfully did. Today, we saw the talent level that we’d been seeing from him.”
Charge It’s final time in the Dwyer was 1:34.67. He was credited with a 111 Beyer Speed Figure. His previous top Beyer was a 93, which he achieved twice, first in an 8 1/2-length maiden win in a one-mile maiden race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 12, then when he ran second to White Abarrio in Gulfstream’s Grade I Florida Derby on April 2.
Though Charge It has not started since the Dwyer, he did have a workout in Florida this past Sunday (Jan. 1), four furlongs in :49.37 at Palm Beach Downs. It was his first published drill since a four-furlong workout in :49.21 on the Belmont Park training track Sept. 27.
You can view the 2022 Dwyer on YouTube (John Imbriale has the call).
3. FLIGHTLINE in Belmont Park’s Grade I Metropolitan Handicap at one mile June 11. (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.)
Flightline won this race in emphatic fashion against by far the best group the $1 million auction purchase had faced up to that point.
Even though Flightline was returning from a long layoff, he trounced four Met Mile foes. He hadn’t started since winning Santa Anita’s Grade I Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26. To have Flightline prepared to run such a marvelous race while making his 2022 debut in June certainly was nothing less than an outstanding training job on the part of Sadler.
Flightline won the Met Mile by six lengths despite some early adversity following a sluggish start, a development that nearly had his trainer lose his lunch. Not only did Flightline succeed after making a long trip to New York for his first start away from his home in California, the Met Mile was the first time he had raced farther than seven furlongs.
Backed down to 2-5 favoritism, Flightline broke from post one. Speaker’s Corner was considered to be the main threat to Flightline. Breaking from post 2 and ridden by Junior Alvarado, Speaker’s Corner was the 5-2 second choice in the wagering.
Speaker’s Corner went into the Met Mile off a sparkling 4 1/2-length win in the Grade I Carter Handicap on April 9 at Aqueduct. He recorded a 114 Beyer in the Carter, the third-highest figure during all of 2022 and the top figure during the year by any horse other than Flightline.
When Flightline won the Malibu late in 2021, he received a 118 Beyer, the biggest figure during all of 2021.
Flightline appeared in big trouble right away in the Met Mile. He failed to break alertly, then was steadied in the early going. After Flightline’s tardy start, one really couldn’t blame Alvarado for doing his best to make Flightline uncomfortable. As I wrote in my Met Mile recap for Xpressbet.com: “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.”
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,” Sadler said.
It also was to Prat’s credit that he did not panic when all did not go well early.
“That’s what you’re exposed to [when breaking from the rail],” 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 Prat had to tap on the brakes early, he managed to get Flightline to the outside of Speaker’s Corner. When Speaker’s Corner was showing the way early, Flightline stalked while about 1 1/2 lengths off the lead. On the far turn Flightline moved up readily to take on Speaker’s Corner in earnest.
Flightline drew away in upper stretch to reach the eighth pole sporting a 4 1/2-length advantage while clearly still full of run. He proceeded to increase his lead through the final furlong.
Three Grade I winners -- Speaker’s Corner, Happy Saver and Aloha West -- were left in Flightline’s wake. As noted earlier, Speaker’s Corner won the Grade I Carter this year. Happy Saver took the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup in 2020. Aloha West proved best in the Grade I BC Sprint in 2021.
Two days after the Met Mile, Andy Beyer, father of the Beyer Speed Figures, said to Steve Byk on the SiriusXM radio program At the Races that Flightline “really enhanced his reputation” in the Met Mile.
“Think about what he was being asked to accomplish,” Beyer said. “He had a setback so he was coming off a 5 1/2-month layoff. He was stretching out to a mile, which he’s never run before. And he happened to be facing the best older horse in the country [Speaker’s Corner]. And then on top of that, he didn’t break. He had an imperfect trip. He had to steady a little behind Speaker’s Corner and still blew him away, winning by six and running a figure of 112. I mean, what more can he do?
“You know, after this race,” Beyer added, “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.”
Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.
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.
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 the 2022 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 big difference in the Beyer Speed Figure they each received for that race. Ghostzapper posted a 122 Beyer. Flightline was credited with a 112.
You can view the 2022 Met Mile on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call).
2. FLIGHTLINE in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Nov. 5. (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.)
In Flightline’s final appearance on the racing stage, he put on quite a show in what undeniably was a superb performance. He reached the finish line in front by a record-breaking margin in North America’s most lucrative race, the $6 million BC Classic.
As I noted in my BC Classic recap for Xpressbet.com, Flightline “ended his all-too-brief and superlative-filled racing career with six victories from six starts by a combined 71 lengths. In his six races, we saw six exhibitions of sheer poetry in motion. All six times it was a tour de force.”
In the BC Classic, Flightline sat just off an early pace that typically would take a toll on anyone setting it or racing near it going 1 1/4 miles.
Life Is Good was out there on the lead, winging through early fractions of :22.55 for the quarter-mile and :45.47 for the half. Life Is Good then completed the first six furlongs in a rapid 1:09.27, at which point both Life Is Good and Flightline were far in front of the others. With a half-mile to go, Hot Rod Charlie was third, a whopping 15 1/2 lengths off the lead.
To put the six-furlong split of 1:09.27 or 1:09 1/5 in fifths into perspective, earlier in the day, Elite Power won the Grade I BC Sprint by completing six furlongs in 1:09.11 or 1:09 flat in fifths.
Turning for home in the BC Classic, it appeared that jockey Flavien Prat was sitting on a ton of horse. The rider decided the time had come to go after Life Is Good. Responding to Prat’s cue, Flightline pounced on the leader and “quickly took over command once in the stretch,” according to the Equibase chart.
“When having to deal in earnest with Flightline, Life Is Good became Life Isn’t Quite So Good and retreated to fifth, losing by 12 1/2 lengths,” I wrote in my recap.
Flightline won by 8 1/4 lengths. That broke the record for biggest winning margin in the history of the BC Classic, which was first run in 1984. The previous record of 6 1/2 lengths had been set by pick-six-scandal-exposer Volponi in 2002 and matched by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015. Volponi was a 49-1 longshot. American Pharoah was a 3-5 favorite.
In terms of wagering in the 2022 BC Classic, I had predicted in print for Xpressbet.com before the race that Flightline might well break Easy Goer’s record for lowest odds by a BC Classic winner.
Easy Goer had been a 1-2 favorite when he finished second to Sunday Silence in the 1989 BC Classic. Sunday Silence was the second choice at 2-1.
I did not expect any of Flightline’s BC Classic opponents to attract anywhere close to the support that Sunday Silence did. That’s why I wrote that I expected Flightline’s final odds to be 2-5, lower than the 3-5 Nick Tammaro had made him on the official morning line and the 3-5 that Brad Free had made him on the Daily Racing Form line. I wrote that if I had been making the BC morning line (which I have done seven times), I would have made Flightline 2-5.
It turned out that Flightline was indeed sent away as a 2-5 favorite. It turned out that he was sent off as an odds-on favorite in all six of his career starts. After going off at 4-5 in his racing debut, he was never better than 2-5 during the remainder of his career.
As a prime example of just how significantly all the money bet on Flightline impacted everyone else’s odds in the BC Classic, Life Is Good had gone off at 4-5 or lower in all 10 of his previous U.S. starts. Life Is Good’s BC Classic price was 8-1.
To Flightline’s credit, his final clocking of 2:00.05 in the BC Classic was only .02 of a second slower than Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s time when he won the 2015 BC Classic, which also was run at Keeneland.
Flightline was credited with a 121 Beyer Speed Figure for his BC Classic triumph. This ranks as the fourth-highest Beyer by a BC Classic winner, lower only than the 124 by Sunday Silence in 1989 and Ghostzapper in 2004, plus Alysheba’s 122 in 1988.
Below are all the Beyers of 120 or higher recorded by a winner in the history of the Breeders’ Cup through 2022:
125 Precisionist in the 1985 Sprint at Aqueduct
124 Sunday Silence in the 1989 Classic at Gulfstream Park
124 Artax in the 1999 Sprint at Gulfstream Park
124 Ghostzapper in the 2004 Classic at Churchill Downs
122 Alysheba in the 1988 Classic at Churchill Downs
121 Very Subtle* in the 1987 Sprint at Hollywood Park
121 Flightline in the 2022 Classic at Keeneland
120 Princess Rooney* in the 1984 Distaff at Hollywood Park
120 Proud Truth in the 1985 Classic at Aqueduct
120 Black Tie Affair in the 1991 Classic at Churchill Downs
120 Skip Away in the 1997 Classic at Hollywood Park
120 Cajun Beat in the 2003 Sprint at Santa Anita Park
120 American Pharoah in the 2015 Classic at Keeneland
120 Arrogate in the 2017 Classic at Santa Anita
*Filly or mare
You can view the 2022 BC Classic on YouTube (Larry Collmus has the call).
1. FLIGHTLINE in Del Mar’s Grade I Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Sept. 3. (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.)
“John Sadler trains a four-footed superstar by the name of Flightline,” I wrote in my Pacific Classic recap for Xpressbet.com. “Sadler has said training him is something like coaching LeBron James.
“What Flightline did last Saturday at Del Mar turned out about the same as if LeBron played a high school kid in a one-on-one basketball game.”
In a goosebumps-producing performance, Flightline won the Pacific Classic by 19 1/4 lengths. He obliterated the Pacific Classic record of 12 1/2 lengths set by the Sadler-trained Accelerate in the 2018 renewal.
Going into the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic, the longest race Flightline had run in was one mile and he had never competed around two turns. One person who was not worried at all about Flightline running in a 1 1/4-mile race around two turns for the first time was his 66-year-old trainer, John Sadler.
“Every racehorse, it starts off with, can they go fast? He can go fast and carry it,” Sadler said of Flightline prior to the Pacific Classic. “That’s what different. The assumption is, when you have a really fast horse, they can’t carry their speed. But this is just an exceptional horse. He can go good fractions and keep going. That’s really a rare horse.”
Flightline was involved in a bit of bumping leaving the gate in the Pacific Classic, but it was nothing of any consequence. He then vied for the early lead without regular rider Flavien Prat having to hustle him to do so.
At the half-mile pole, Flightline led by only one length, according to the Equibase chart. And then, in not much more time than it takes to say his name, his advantage quickly grew to about five lengths going into the far turn.
“Entering the far turn, with Flightline now well clear without having been asked for the slightest bit of speed yet, Prat decided to put his foot down on the accelerator, but just a teensy bit,” I wrote.
“When we went into the final turn, he was traveling so well that I asked him to pick it up a little bit,” Prat would say after the race.
What Flightline did the rest of the way was absolutely amazing.
“Three things occurred simultaneously on the far turn,” I wrote. “First, after Flightline was asked ‘to pick it up a little bit,’ he responded eagerly while just floating along across the ground. Second, 49-1 longshot Extra Hope was retreating when paying the price for having dueled for the lead with Flightline to about the half-mile pole. And third, the others, despite being hard ridden, were not rallying while far behind Flightline.
“As a result of that all taking place, Flightline managed to increase his advantage with every silky-smooth stride on the far turn to reach the quarter pole 10 lengths in front.
“At that point, there were two main questions that remained to be answered: How far would Flightline win by? And would he break the track record?
“When Flightline’s lead ballooned to 13 lengths with a furlong to go, they might as well have ended this year’s Pacific Classic right then by invoking a mercy rule, like they do when a Little League baseball game gets out of hand.
“Not long after Prat took a peek back over his right shoulder in the vicinity of the eighth pole, he felt that the time had come to go ahead and ease off the accelerator. Prat allowed Flightline to just canter home without even the slightest bit of urging.”
Said Prat: “As soon as I looked back and saw how far in front he was, I wrapped up on him.”
As Flightline approached the sixteenth pole in front by a block, the crowd roared.
“Take a good look at this, because this something you’re not going to see too often, maybe never again!” said track announcer Trevor Denman.
“When you get right down to it, the 2022 Pacific Classic at Del Mar just wasn’t fair,” I wrote. “Flightline really should have been asked to give the others a head start, or at least be ridden by a sumo wrestler instead of Prat.”
The Pacific Classic fractions were :23.42 for the opening quarter-mile, :46.06 for the half, 1:09.97 for six furlongs, then 1:34.47 for one mile.
“If Prat had simply flicked his wrists approaching the finish, or maybe even just sneezed, Flightline would have broken the 19-year-old track record of 1:59.11 set by another undefeated runner, Candy Ride, in 2003,” I wrote. “Flightline’s final time was 1:59.28 or 1:59 1/5 in fifths.”
When Secretariat won the 1973 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, he completed 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 2/5, which broke Northern Dancer’s track record of 2:00 set in 1964.
In addition to being a visual treat, Flightline’s Pacific Classic performance was quantified as being spectacular in that he received an enormous Beyer Speed Figure of 126. The 126 is tied for being the second-biggest Beyer since the figures were made public in 1991 (initially in the Racing Times, then in the Daily Racing Form).
The highest Beyer since 1991 was Ghostzapper’s 128 when he won Monmouth Park’s Grade III Philip H. Iselin Handicap on a sloppy track by 10 3/4 lengths at 1 1/8 miles in 2004.
According to Andy Beyer, creator of the Beyer Speed Figures, three other horses have run a 126. They all did it in 1997. Those three were Formal Gold, Gentlemen and Will’s Way.
“That is very honorable company for Flightline to be in,” Beyer said two days after the Pacific Classic to Steve Byk on the SiriusXM radio program At the Races.
Flightline kicked off his racing career with a 105 Beyer, followed by figures of 114, 118, 112, 126 and 121 in the BC Classic.
In a story for the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary website written by Steve Dennis, a turf writer in England, Sadler said that Flightline had been a ‘wow’ horse from day one.
“April Mayberry, who broke him at her farm in Ocala [Florida], said the first time she saw him breeze she knew he was special,” Sadler noted. “Flightline’s the kind of horse who comes along every 20, 30 years. The numbers he runs are unbelievable. I don’t think there are many people who’ve ever had a horse this good.”
Remember, Sadler said all that BEFORE the Pacific Classic.
Sadler told the English writer that Flightline might be the equivalent of Frankel, who won all 14 of his races from 2010-12 while racing exclusively in England, with 10 of his victories coming at the Group I level.
Ray Paulick, publisher of the Paulick Report, wrote that Flightline’s Pacific Classic was “the kind of performance that famously moved Jack Nicklaus to tears while watching Secretariat’s Belmont tour de force alone at his home in Florida.”
This was a headline for an article written by Nicholas Godfrey for Thoroughbred Racing Commentary after the Pacific Classic: The new Secretariat? Flightline earns extraordinary Beyer figure of 126 for Pacific Classic romp
Godfrey called Flightline’s Pacific Classic “one of the most astonishing performances in the modern era of U.S. racing.”
This was a Thoroughbred Daily News headline for a post-Pacific Classic article written by Bill Finley: Was Flightline’s Pacific Classic the Best Performance Since Secretariat’s Belmont?
Finley made the observation that Flightline’s Pacific Classic unfolded in nearly identical fashion to Secretariat’s iconic 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes to complete a Triple Crown sweep.
“Secretariat’s rivals were still within striking distance midway down the backstretch as Sham stayed close,” Finley wrote. “Then he spurted his way from Sham and, from there, kept widening his margin over his competition.
“Flightline did much the same thing. With a half-mile to go in the race, Extra Hope was just a length behind Flightline while the main rivals were all within five to six lengths. Then Flightline hit another gear, took off and left some good horses looking like they belonged in the seventh at Finger Lakes.”
Dave Johnson called the 1973 Belmont Stakes over the track’s public address system.
Secretariat’s Belmont and Flightline’s Pacific Classic “were very similar,” Johnson told Finley. Flightline’s “Pacific Classic was breathtaking and that explosion of speed into the far turn was very similar to what Secretariat did. Almost 50 years later, I’ve never been so impressed by a horse or saw something that sent me back to the Secretariat days.”
Bill Mott, the Hall of Famer who trained two-time Horse of the Year Cigar, said that Flightline “looked spectacular” in a BloodHorse article written by Tim Wilkin. “To me, it was a Secretariat-type performance that we saw. There’s not much more to say about it.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sent out Pacific Classic runner-up Country Grammer. Baffert quipped afterward that Flightline was so far in front at the finish that Country Grammer thought he won the race.
I installed Flightline as a 1-5 morning-line favorite in the Pacific Classic. Mac McBride, Del Mar’s director of media, noted that Flightline tied for having the lowest Pacfic Classic morning-line price with Cigar, who likewise was 1-5 in the 1996 renewal.
In one of the biggest upsets in California racing history, Cigar was thwarted in his bid to extend his winning streak to 17 in the Pacific Classic. He finished second at odds of 1-10 to 39-1 Dare and Go.
When Flightline exited the starting gate, his final odds were 1-5 on the board, though his actually price was a tick higher at 3-10.
By returning $2.60 for each $2 win wager, Flightline broke another record. The previous lowest $2 win payoff in the Pacific Classic had been Accelerate’s $2.80.
You can view the 2022 Pacific Classic on YouTube (Trevor Denman has the call).
I ranked Flightline’s Malibu Stakes victory as the finest performance by a Thoroughbred in the U.S. during 2021. And I rank his win in the Pacific Classic as the finest performance that occurred in this country during 2022.
I have been compiling a list of the Top 10 performances in the U.S. each year for Xpressbet.com from 2004 to the present. And I consider Flightline’s Pacific Classic to be the best performance of them all during this time period.
Below are my top performances of the year going back to 2004:
2022 Flightline in the Grade I Pacific Classic
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