Horse racing’s LeBron James? Flightline looks to win at Del Mar

Rarely has a horse as inexperienced as Flightline been placed on such a high pedestal by a sport so desperately in need of superstars.

On Saturday, many of the questions surrounding the 4-year-old colt will be answered, when he competes against a strong field in the $1-million Pacific Classic at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Can he go around two turns, something he’s never done?

Can he make 1¼ miles, something he’s never done?

Can he win the Pacific Classic in only his fifth start, and only second start this year?

If the answer to all those questions is yes, then he might be a horse of a generation.

John Sadler, who has won purses of almost $140 million in his career, is unequivocal in saying he’s the best horse he has trained.

“He’s just one of those rare athletes, it’s like if you get a LeBron [James],” Sadler said. “He showed it from day one. He has tremendous ability and all the other superlatives. He’s never hit his talent.”

The colt has won his four races by a combined 43½ lengths, including Grade 1 wins in the Malibu at Santa Anita and the Met Mile at Belmont. The race at Belmont was around one turn, unlike Del Mar and Santa Anita, where horses need two turns to run a mile.

The other five horses in the race have won 26 races out of 85 starts. So, it‘s reasonable to assume Flightline has never faced a field as tough as this, headed by Country Grammer, winner of this year’s Dubai World Cup.

Even Bob Baffert, Country Grammer’s trainer, admits everyone but Flightline might be running for second.

“Watching him breeze, he’s like [Triple Crown winner American] Pharoah in the way he goes over the ground,” Baffert said. “You see him go and then look at your watch and can’t believe he did it so easily. He could be in the class of super athletes, like a Usain Bolt. I don’t see the mile and a quarter as being an obstacle. But you don’t know until they do it.”

Flightline, with jockey Flavien Prat aboard, wins the Hill 'N' Dale Metropolitan at Belmont Park on June 11.

Flightline, with jockey Flavien Prat aboard, wins the Hill ‘N’ Dale Metropolitan at Belmont Park on June 11.

(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

Trying to figure out why Flightline is so good is not easy to answer.

Kerry Thomas, of THT Bloodstock, has done groundbreaking research into herd dynamics and the psychology of horses as it relates to performance. At the request of the Los Angeles Times, he studied Flightline’s four races.

“His first two races were just physical domination because he’s so physically talented,” Thomas said. “But in his last two races, you can see when he comes out of the gate — call it a hesitation — that’s when he starts reading the environment and then responding to it.

“Based on this small sample size, he has shown he is able to operate independent of the herd environment. Horses are herd animals, but he’s showing signs of having a profound ability and independent nature. With a horse with this fast of a mental cycle, he should be able to avoid problems. It will all come with continued growth.”

Thomas puts horses in two categories: individual herd dynamic, or IHD, and group herd dynamic, or GHD.

“IHD-shifted horses like Flightline, are best coached and developed athletically through the avenue of learned behavior,” Thomas said. “GHD horses, like Epicenter (winner of the Travers Stakes) are best coached and developed through natural tendency.”

Or maybe it’s just easier to not overthink his talent and accept he might just be the best horse in the country right now.

Flightline’s infrequent trips to the race track are due largely to a series of minor injuries that took the horse out of training.

“John’s been able to manage him really well,” Baffert said. “He’s been able to give him the space in between races and that’s been good. It’s different than the Triple Crown races [where there are three races in five weeks]. Would he have been able to handle something like that? We’ll never know.”

Sadler is no stranger to the winner’s circle after the Pacific Classic, having won it three of the last four years. The best of those horses was Accelerate in 2018. The colt would have been the logical horse of the year if it hadn’t been the same year as Justify winning the Triple Crown.

If Flightline wins he will have a free pass into the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 12 at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. It’s there that he would meet Life Is Good, who has won five of his last six races, including last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Asked if he planned to squeeze another race in before the Breeders’ Cup, Sadler was noncommittal.

“Ask me after the race,” Sadler said. “We have that option if we want to use it. That’s what we did with Accelerate. We’ll just see how it goes.”

The race would be the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 1. When Accelerate did the Pacific-Awesome Again-Classic triple, he won all three races.

Sadler says he hopes Flightline will stick around for his 5-year-old season.

“We’ll see where we’re at at the end of the year,” Sadler said. “Whatever we decide, he’ll have a great career at Lane’s End when his racing days are over.”

A lot of things will become more clear after Saturday and racing will know if it watched a really good horse, or one of which legends are made.

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