Thankful for the blue-collar horse

The debate about whether Flightline is the greatest horse of all time, or of the 21st century, or just of last month is, thankfully, already in our rearview mirrors. The shiniest bauble in 2022 racing’s jewelry box is off to spread his seed, an activity for which he’ll earn his owners far more serious coin than he ever could running around in circles with a jockey on his back.

The great ones, these days, are so much racing fool’s gold. As soon as they get good, they get gone.

Farewell to Flightline, and to most of the top of the three-year-old crop, and and and…

It’s a tried-and-true lament: racing has no stars! Lather-rinse-repeat.

Maybe, though, Nabokov was, in a very different context, right; maybe we’re dialing the wrong number, “turning the letter ‘o’ instead of the zero.”

Racing is more gambling game than sport, its pleasures, if we are to find them, more bag lunch than Thanksgiving feast. Which is to say, you may go a very long time between drinks if you’re waiting for the bartender to bring you a Flightline who races into his seven- or eight-year-old year. But if you can take joy (and find betting opportunities) from two claimers slugging it out to the wire, then maybe you’ve got something.

Once upon a time there was a horse named Kelso. But only once.

Joe Hirsch wrote that about the five-time Horse of the Year whose feats will almost certainly never be repeated. Consider: his victory in the Washington, DC International, then the nation’s premier turf event, came at age seven, in his fourth attempt.

How often these days do horses run in one race four times?

More often than you might think, but they’re mostly not the ones populating Grade 1 events. What they’re doing instead is running in minor stakes, state-bred events, local fixtures.

Just as that Thanksgiving feast is meant to remind you of all that you have all the year round to be thankful for, perhaps the Flightlines of the world, with their transcendent, fleeting brilliance, can remind us to be thankful for the workaday horses that populate your local track every day.

For example:

  • Seven-year-old Penguin Power, who in October became just the second horse to win four West Virginia Breeders’ Classics races.
  • Six-year-old Fille d’Esprit, who will try for her fifth stakes win of 2022 in Friday’s Politely at Laurel. That would tie her with Pennsylvania-bred Caravel and others for the second-most stakes wins in the country this year.
  • Seven-year-old Whereshetoldmetogo, a 17-time winner who could reach $1 million in career earnings in Friday’s Howard and Sondra Bender Memorial Stakes (video preview here), also at Laurel;
  • Beverly Park, a mere five-year-old, who’s made 27 starts this year alone, posting a dozen victories, which are four more wins than any other horse in the nation. Oh, yeah, he’s back in the entries for a starter allowance contest Monday at Mahoning Valley.
  • Nine-year-old Rough Sea, who won the Native Dancer at Laurel earlier this year.

Those five horses have combined to make 170 career starts, posting 75 wins and earning more than $2.8 million. By contrast, the last five Breeders’ Cup Classic winners have made a combined total of only 77 starts, and the five Kentucky Derby winners prior to Rich Strike, who’s still racing, raced just 42 times.

In his three starts this year, Flightline made more than $4.2 million. That’s 50% more than our hard-knockers have made in 170 outings.

Once upon a time there was Flightline. But if you blinked, you missed him, so brief was his hour upon the stage.

Those — the Derby winners, the Classic champions — may be the horses that, for a brief, exhilarating moment, capture the public’s attention (and earn stupid money).

But when that moment has fled — and it always does — it’s these, these Fille d’Esprits and Penguin Powers, these Rough Seas and Whereshetoldmetogos and Beverly Parks, that we return to. They’re the ones that fill the cards day after day at racetracks around the country, the ones we can count on to try their best eight or 10 or 20 times a year.

Bemoan racing’s lack of high-end, sticking-around stars?

No, thanks. Be thankful, instead, for the blue-collar horses that are the spine of the industry.

[Note: This is an updated and substantially rewritten version of a story that ran in 2014.]