By Mike Farrell
Four stars, two thumbs up, the next can’t miss sensation. Yes, racing has a new hero.
It’s all part of the annual ritual as we move into a new year. Many of the luminaries of the previous campaign depart, whisked off to the breeding sheds. They leave a void, but a fascinating aspect of the sport is that fresh faces always step forward to claim center stage.
The spotlight is now aimed squarely at Flightline after his dazzling win Sunday in the Malibu Stakes (G1) on opening day at Santa Anita. How dazzling was the 3-year-old? How about a win by 11 ½ lengths that left six rivals choking on his dust.
“My horse ran a winning race anywhere else,” said jockey Jose Ortiz aboard runner-up Baby Yoda. “If Flightline isn’t there, I win. He’s a freak.”
As in freakishly good. The colt trained by John Sadler is 3-for-3, and upside is seemingly limitless.
“This is not an ordinary horse, this is a very special horse,” Sadler said. “We want to do right by the horse and all other things will fall into place.”
A $1 million yearling purchase in 2019, Flightline was given ample time to grow, develop and overcome a farm accident and a bruised foot. In this case, patience proved to be a rewarded virtue.
If you’re in a mood to quibble, a skeptic could point to the fact Flightline has not proven himself going a route. The 7-furlong Malibu was his longest effort to date.
Sadler quickly shot down the notion that Flightline has limitations.
“He’ll go a distance the next time,” Sadler said. “There is a lot of pressure on you, but it is the pressure you want. It’s like the high school coach for LeBron. You know you have something special, and he is much the best. This horse is there. You just don’t want to screw it up.”
The news is already out. Flightline paid only $2.80 to win as the 2-5 favorite. And now the waiting game begins, and the anticipation builds for the colt’s next start when he will face older runners for the first time.
“The next race is up to the horse,” Sadler said. “We have to be true to the horse. We will chart the course from there.”
Road to the Derby continues at Oaklawn, Big A, and Santa Anita
While Flightline moves on from the 3-year-old ranks, the New Year brings a trio of Triple Crown preps on Saturday: the $250,000 Smarty Jones at Oaklawn; the $150,000 Jerome at Aqueduct and the $100,000 Sham (G3) at Santa Anita.
All three are 1-mile contests, and each offers 10 Kentucky Derby (G1) qualifying points to the winner.
It’s a long way from the first Saturday in January to the first Saturday in May and of the trio, the Smarty Jones might be the most impactful.
Oaklawn made a major commitment to beefing up it’s 3-year-old program and you can see the results in the Smarty Jones. For starters, the quarter-of-a-million dollar purse is a lot of money for an ungraded stakes. Owners and trainers certainly took notice as the race attracted an astounding 98 nominations.
Preference will be given to horses with highest earnings. Steve Asmussen should be a player as the trainer nominated 21, giving him a world of options.
Aqueduct returns from its Christmas break on Thursday with the Jerome topping the opening weekend action. The Remsen (G2) won by Mo Donegal on Dec. 4 was the final graded 2-year-old stakes of 2021 in New York. None of the top three finishers from that race nominated to the Jerome. The only possible returnee is Mr Jefferson, a distant fourth, 10 lengths behind the winner.
Out west where it should be warmer and sunnier, the Sham is the only graded stakes of the three with some very familiar names targeting the race. Of the 12 nominees, six hail from the Bob Baffert barn including Rockefeller, winner of the Nashua Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park in early November. It could be an intriguing spot for Mackinnon, last seen rallying for third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). If trainer Doug O’Neill wants to take a Triple Crown try with the son of American Pharoah, the Sham would be a good spot to see if he can handle a return to the main track after compiling a mark of 3-1-1 in five races on grass.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.