Stuff that matters

An unusual lot at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale on Monday will put a price on Flightline, the brilliant – and now retired – winner of Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. A 2.5% slice of the world’s best racehorse will be sold to the highest bidder and when the hammer falls, most guesstimates suggest Flightline will be worth at least $70m.

Rarity value alone will bump the price, of course, but Flightline did everything that any fan – or breeder – could have hoped to see in what turned out to be his final start. The winning margin of eight and a quarter lengths was a record for the Classic, and Flightline powered clear, under a hand ride, after sitting just behind a blistering pace for the first mile.

After a near 50-year wait for a horse that could even be mentioned in the same breath as the extraordinary Secretariat, however, there was understandable frustration on Sunday that Flightline had been snatched away to stud after just six races. Perhaps inevitably too, for some fans that spilled over into revisionism about the depth of Flightline’s talent. How, they asked, can any horse be called an all-time great after half a dozen starts?

But these are different times, with different values and priorities, and no champion is ever likely to have a campaign like Secretariat, who packed 21 races into a 16-month career and retired at the end of his three-year-old season. The great Cigar, meanwhile, raced 33 times in all, including seven starts on turf before he found his true calling on the dirt and racked up a record-equalling 16-race win streak. It might also be recalled that when he finally went to stud at the end of his six-year-old season, Cigar proved to be infertile.

When it comes to Flightline, though, it was always going to be the case that the better his performance in the Classic at Keeneland, the more certain it would be that he would be settling into his new life as a stallion at Lanes End Farm before Christmas. There comes a point these days when a horse like Flightline is simply too valuable to race, not least when he struts his stuff on dirt, a surface which – according to the 2021 Equine Injury Database report – has twice the rate of fatal injuries per 1,000 starts as an artificial surface.

It remains to be seen whether Saturday’s valedictory success is enough to move Flightline alongside Frankel – or perhaps even in front of Sir Henry Cecil’s unbeaten champion – in the ratings. And at moments like this, it is also worth recalling the wise words of Chris Williams in a letter to the Racing Post several years ago. “If ever my life becomes so empty,” he wrote, “my intellect so shrivelled and my conversation so dull, that I resort to insisting a good horse from one era is, or is not, better than one from years ago, please shoot me.”

But wherever Flightline ends up in the official pantheon, and regardless of whether he is a success or a flop at stud, the best measure of his worth and legacy will be the millions of racing fans around the world who will never forget the thrill of seeing him extend and accelerate off the final turn at Keeneland on Saturday.

His win set the perfect seal on a Breeders’ Cup which had already featured several outstanding finishes, and underlined the extent to which US racing is beginning to find its feet after years of steady decline. For the second year running, the total betting “handle” over the 14 Breeders’ Cup races was a record, up 3.4% on 2021 at $189,060,373, while the success of European-trained runners in the turf events, with six wins out of seven, can only encourage an even more concerted assault on next year’s meeting at Santa Anita.

That will mark the 40th running of the Breeders’ Cup, an event which started with just seven races at the now-defunct Hollywood Park in 1984. Now entirely Lasix-free, it has started to thrive once again in its late 30s, and the return to Santa Anita, the most popular venue in the rotation, promises to be another weekend to anticipate and cherish.