Gary West.

West: This Year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint Could Be One That Takes Flight

By Gary West/Special to TVG

The moment of observation can be opaque and uncertain because within that moment we usually don’t know or understand precisely what we’re watching. Is this a witless joyrider speeding down the highway or an anxious driver urgently rushing a severely injured friend to the hospital? Is this a vitriolic argument or a rehearsal for “The Taming of the Shrew”? Is that kiss affectionate or perfunctory? Retrospection and context usually answer such questions, but during the actual moment of observation, there’s often uncertainty.

That’s one of the reasons Flightline is so exceptional: No uncertainty accompanied him back in April when he made his debut at Santa Anita, or rather the uncertainty left town in about :44.42, the time he needed to run the opening half-mile. Within the moment of observation, when he began to draw clear in the turn or certainly by mid-stretch, where he left any aspirational threats more than 10 lengths in the past, it was already scintillatingly clear what we were watching: the unveiling of an extraordinary talent. Through the lane, jockey Flavien Prat was as chilled as an oyster on the half-shell. And this week, Flightline’s trainer, John Sadler, told the Daily Racing Form that the colt is “under consideration” for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1).

If Flightline indeed runs, this year’s Sprint would be the most interesting and compelling in years: the best edition of the race since at least 2017, when Roy H defeated Imperial Hint and Drefong at Del Mar, and possibly the most intriguing since 1990, when the great Safely Kept put her head in front at the wire just after the sensational European Dayjur jumped Belmont Park’s late-afternoon shadows. Also among those in that 1990 field were Black Tie Affair, Dancing Spree and Carson City. Yes, with the inclusion of Flightline, this year’s Sprint could be one of the day’s best races.

But there’s no guarantee Flightline can get into the race. The Sprint is limited to 14 starters, and if it’s oversubscribed a panel of officials will select the starters from the horses pre-entered. The panel is unlikely to give preference to a horse who never has entered a stakes. Still, the Sprint can be receptive to such boldness simply because it’s typically not oversubscribed. Over the last 10 years, the Sprint has averaged 11 starters, with only four full fields during that time. Of the last five, only last year’s running had 14 starters.

And if he’s in, Flightline will be one of the favorites to win. His inexperience probably won’t be a hindrance; it’s not as if he’s going to rally through traffic from 10 lengths back.  A big, long-striding colt, he requires a second or two to gather his momentum and get it pointed down the track, but he’ll be close to the early lead in the Sprint, close probably to Jackie’s Warrior, and from there his talent will take him where he needs to go. And the talent is prodigious.

After his jaw-dropping debut, Flightline didn’t race for more than four months — because of a foot bruise, according to Sadler. When he returned on Sept. 5, expectations were understandably high, if not entirely fair. Was it fair to expect back-to-back no-hitters, in the style of Johnny Vander Meer, the only pitcher ever to do such a gobsmacking thing (1938)? And, make no mistake, Flightline’s debut was a no-hitter.  

But he did indeed do it again, not only matching but surpassing his debut: He threw a perfect game. Moving to the lead as he entered the Del Mar turn, devouring real-estate like a John Deere dozer, Flightline steadily drew clear to the top of the lane in :44.17 for the half-mile and to the wire in 1:08.05 for the three-quarters, with Prat taking the colt in hand without even bothering to look around, as if anybody could have been close. The final time was about two lengths off King of Cricket’s track record (1:07.60) and was the fastest clocking at the track since Lord Nelson’s 1:07.65 in the 2016 Bing Crosby (G1). For further perspective, Roy H won the Sprint at Del Mar in 1:08.61.

Afterwards, describing Flightline in obvious terms as a “rare, gifted horse,” Sadler said the colt could have broken the track record if that had been the goal, and maybe he could have. Or maybe he’s like Officer, who won the first five races of his career with audacious ease as if to suggest his tank was still full to the gunwales. But when he was finally asked to meet a challenge, his tank, as it turned out, was empty; the energy assumed to be in reserve and the promise to deliver more were all pretense: Officer finished fifth as the 3-5 favorite in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

This is an unusual year in that the best sprinters all seem to be 3-year-olds. Who are the best older sprinters anyway? A moment’s reflection is needed to come up with them: Mischevious Alex, Mind Control, Lexitonian, Firenze Fire, C Z Rocket, Yaupon. But they can’t beat Jackie’s Warrior, who’s the quickest horse in the country (based on personal pace figures and his :43.95 half in the Amsterdam). In winning the Allen Jerkens (G1) at Saratoga, he ran nearly two lengths faster than the older horses in the Forego (G1) on the same day. And Dr. Schivel, a 3-year-old who’s unbeaten in three starts at Del Mar, beat C Z Rocket and company while winning the recent Bing Crosby (G1).

With such an ordinary group of older sprinters, it might be a good time for lightly raced 3-year-olds such as Baby Yoda or Beau Liam, who have never tested themselves in stakes company, to try something bold. Baby Yoda, who has won three of his four races, would be especially dangerous. Or this could be the ideal moment for Gamine, the sensational filly who’s undefeated in four races this year, to take on males. In doing so, she’d run for twice the money; the purse for the Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) is $1 million.

But the feeling here is that Flightline just might be the most talented horse in the country. That’s why this year’s Sprint could be so compelling: It could turn into, just maybe, an announcement on a grand stage of the arrival of the sport’s latest superstar. A million-dollar yearling purchase by Tapit, Flightline is out of the Indian Charlie mare Feathered, who finished second in the 2015 American Oaks (G1) at 1 1/4 miles. So his pedigree strongly suggests Flightline has a future racing longer distances and isn’t really, or naturally, a sprinter. After the colt’s most recent victory, Sadler didn’t sound the least interested in the Sprint and said he’d point Flightline at the Malibu (G1) in December at Santa Anita, with an idea of stretching him out around two turns next year.

But you don’t want to pass on rutabaga pie, and it’s difficult to pass on a $2 million race. A victory would give the owners a quick return on their investment and make Flightline a hotly anticipated stallion with a gleaming future still awaiting him on the track. Will he win the Sprint? That’s a question whose answer only the future can provide. But can he win the Sprint? Absolutely.

Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.