Comparisons of Flightline to legendary Triple Crown champion Secretariat may initially sound like a stretch, though they offer a hint about his dominance.
The 4-year-old bay colt has yet to lose in five starts, and four of his wins have been by double-digit lengths. All told, Flightline has won by a whopping 63 lengths combined, including a 19 1/4-length romp in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic Stakes at Del Mar on Sept. 3.
No wonder he enters Saturday’s $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland as the 3-5 favorite, which speaks volumes considering the impressive group of contenders vying for Horse of the Year honors. Flightline drew the No. 4 post position among eight horses for the 1 1/4-mile race on dirt but given his stellar resume, trainer John Sadler is confident about any place his pupil runs from, at any distance.
“The mile and a quarter, that was the question before the Pacific Classic and he answered that,” Sadler said. “There’s not much more I can say.”
The eight-horse Grade 1 Classic is the marquee event among nine second-day stakes races at Keeneland. The picturesque track in the heart of horse country is hosting the season-ending championships for the second time in three years and will feature full grandstands after the 2020 running went off without spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Preceding the Classic is the $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf with nine foreign-trained horses among 13 entrants. Nations Pride is the 7-2 choice and leads seven Irish horses, with Master Piece (China) and Nautilus (Brazil) also in the field.
Most of the attention will be on the Classic and which horse could potentially derail Flightline’s bid for his biggest victory.
Epicenter (5-1, No. 6 post) and Life Is Good (6-1, No. 2) are the next two choices, for good reasons. Taiba is an 8-1 choice starting from the rail for embattled Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who’s back in Kentucky for the first time since serving a 90-day suspension this spring by Kentucky racing stewards for a postrace positive drug test by Medina Spirit in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Baffert is seeking a record fifth victory in the Classic.
Steve Asmussen-trained colt Epicenter has four wins and three seconds as a 3-year-old and seemed headed toward a Kentucky Derby win this spring until 80-1 long shot Rich Strike (20-1, No. 8 in the Classic) stormed out of nowhere down the stretch. Epicenter won both the Travers Stakes and Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga this summer by a combined 6 3/4 lengths.
“The opportunity is there,” said Asmussen, a Hall of Famer who’s seeking his third Classic win and first since 2017. “And is it easy? Absolutely not. Should it be easy? Absolutely not. I mean that that’s what’s so special about this.”
Todd Pletcher is just as confident about Life Is Good, who brings in a three-race winning streak by a combined 8 1/4 lengths. He’ll start to the immediate left of stablemate Happy Saver (30-1), who seeks his first win as a 5-year-old.
Meanwhile, Baffert has been heartened by the reception he has received in the Bluegrass State. His simple hope is that Taiba can duplicate Medina Spirit’s runner-up Classic finish last year at Del Mar.
“He’s one of these that you’ve got to stay after him,” Baffert said of Taiba. “But he’s doing really well. He looks exceptionally well and I think he’s going to get better as he gets older.”
The forecast features a 40% chance of rain but with temperatures in the mid-70s. Post time is 5:40 p.m. EDT.