Classic Breeders Cup On Tap

Last Saturday morning, nearly 3,000 people crowded around Keeneland’s main track to watch a horse run five furlongs in the dark. The workout took all of one minute and change. Oh, and it was the fourth fastest of 62 running that distance that morning.

Did we mention this was a workout? “Practice,” in the immortal words of former NBA All-Star Allen Iversen?

Yes, we were talking about the equine version of “Practice.” We’re talking about nearly 3,000 people watching a horse work out at dawn. We’re also talking about one of the most dynamic horses of the last 35 years.

We’re talking about Flightline, the 3-5 morning-line favorite to win Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. The $6 million Classic is the flagship race of the 14 Breeders’ Cup World Championship races contested at Keeneland Friday and Saturday in what is a veritable all-star roster of races.

Don’t Forget Other Races

There’s the $4 million Turf, featuring War Like Goddess taking on the boys in a race traditionally dominated by Europeans. There’s the $2 million Distaff, offering up the last two Kentucky Oaks winners: Malathaat (2021) and Secret Oath (2022), along with the two fillies who have outrun them over the summer, Nest and Clairiere. Don’t forget the $1 million Sprint, where Jackie’s Warrior seeks to wrap up his stellar career with the one race eluding him.

The $2 million Juvenile headlines Friday’s five-race “Future Stars” card of all 2-year-old races. It gives horseplayers a glimpse at potential Kentucky Derby starters come next spring.

All of that and the other nine races boast an impressive roster of talent. But they’re all the chorus in a way to the Classic. Win the 1 ¼-mile marquee event and you not only put yourself in the mix for Horse of the Year, but you put yourself in the mix for immortality.


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Flightline Dominating

And Flightline is already headed that way. The 4-year-old Tapit progeny is 5-for-5, which doesn’t begin to describe how electrifying he’s been in those five races. Flightline’s 5-for-5 comes with a combined 62 ¼-length margin of victory. The closest anyone has gotten to him is six lengths. That came in last summer’s Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park, after he got off to a slow start.

There was nothing slow about his last race: an incandescent 19 ¼-length dismantling of the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar in September. Flightline actually got faster as the race went on.

Four years ago, down the highway at Churchill Downs, John Sadler was in a similar position. The California-based trainer brought favored Accelerate into the Classic off four consecutive Grade 1 victories. He made it five, capturing the Classic by a length.

“The vibe is definitely different this year, but it is the kind of vibe you want,” Sadler said, dismissing any feeling of pressure. “Nope, I think the pressure is on the other guys.”


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Other Contenders

Those “other guys” include some pretty good horses, including a trio of 3-year-olds you may have heard of. There’s Travers Stakes winner Epicenter, who finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. There’s Taiba, who won the Santa Anita and Pennsylvania derbies and finished second in the Haskell. And there’s the horse who stole the Derby from Epicenter in the last 50 yards: Rich Strike.

There’s three 4-year-olds starting with the stellar Life Is Good, who comes in 9-for-11 with a Breeders’ Cup title already on the mantle, courtesy of his six-length domination in last year’s Dirt Mile. Four of Life Is Good’s nine wins are Grade 1s and he’s 4-for-5 this year. But the blip came at this 10-furlong distance: a fourth in the Dubai World Cup.

There’s Hot Rod Charlie, who finished fourth in this race last year. He’s finished no worse than third in five races this year, banking more than $3 million. And there’s Olympiad, who is 6-for-7 in 2022, coming in off a score in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in September.

Good pedigrees, good resumes, to be sure. But every other trainer save Sadler knows what kind of hill this is.

“It’s a tall order,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who owns four Classic titles: all with 3-year-olds. “You’ve got these two brilliant horses, Flightline and Life Is Good. And they are 4-year-olds. If they were 3-year-olds, it would be different. But they are 4-year-olds, so they’re at their max right now.”

Can Others Measure Up?

Steve Asmussen, who trains Epicenter and trained Taiba’s sire, 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, sees the same measuring stick.

“Obviously, Flightline being 5-for-5 going in there and coming off such a beautiful win in the Pacific Classic we are all excited to see how we measure up,” he said.

Olympiad’s trainer, Bill Mott, crystal-balled the race.

“I see Life Is Good jumping out there in front and Flightline getting his legs together after about a sixteenth of a mile and probably laying right on him, right on his hip, if he can,” Mott said. It should be really interesting. I’m anxious to see what is going to happen.”

He should have plenty of company. After all, we won’t be talking about “practice.”


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