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 that so desperately needs superstars.

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

Can he do two laps, something he’s never done before?

Can he do 1¼ miles, which he’s never done before?

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

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

John Sadler, who has earned nearly $140 million in prize money in his career, says unequivocally that he is the best horse he has ever trained.

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

The stallion has won his four races totaling 43½ lengths, including Grade 1 wins at the Malibu in Santa Anita and the Met Mile at Belmont. The Belmont race lasted about one lap, in contrast to Del Mar and Santa Anita where horses take two laps to run a mile.

The other five horses in the race have won 26 races from 85 starts. So it’s reasonable to assume that Flightline have never faced such a tough field, led by this year’s Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer.

Even Bob Baffert, Country Grammer’s coach, admits that everyone but Flightline could run for second place.

“If you watch him squirm, that’s what he’s like [Triple Crown winner American] Pharaoh in the way he walks the floor,” Baffert said. “You see him leaving and then you look at your watch and you can’t believe he made it so easy. He could be in the supersport class, like a Usain Bolt. I don’t see the mile and a quarter as an obstacle. But you don’t know until they do.”

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

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

(Seth Little / Associated Press)

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

Kerry Thomas of THT Bloodstock has conducted pioneering research on herd dynamics and the psychology of performance in horses. At the request of the Los Angeles Times, he studied Flightline’s four races.

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

“Based on this small sample size, he has demonstrated his ability to operate independently of the herd environment. Horses are herd animals, but he shows signs of profound ability and an independent nature. With a horse with such a fast mental cycle, he should be able to avoid problems. All of this will come with continued growth.”

Thomas divides horses into two categories: individual herd dynamics or IHD and group herd dynamics or GHD.

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

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

The infrequent trips from Flightline to the circuit are largely due to a series of minor injuries that have taken the horse out of training.

“John was really good at managing him,” Baffert said. “He was able to give him the space between races and that was good. It’s different than the Triple Crown races [where there are three races in five weeks]. Could he have endured something like that? We will never know.”

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

If Flightline wins, he will receive a free ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 12 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. There he meets Life Is Good, who has won five of his last six races, including last year’s Breeders’ Cup mile.

When asked if he planned to schedule another race before the Breeders’ Cup, Sadler remained noncommittal.

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

The race would be the Awesome Again Stakes in Santa Anita on October 1st. When Accelerate made the Pacific Awesome Again Classic Triple, he won all three races.

Sadler hopes Flightline stays with him for his 5-year season.

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

Many things will become clearer after Saturday and racing will know if it has seen a really good horse or one that legends are made of. Horse racing’s LeBron James? Flightline looks to win at Del Mar

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