The big showdown may be five weeks away, but the battle lines were drawn in the mud Oct. 1 at a dank Aqueduct Racetrack.
After the undefeated Flightline turned in his final prep for the Nov. 5 Longines Breeders' Cup Classic with an awe-inspiring 19 1/4-length win in the Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic, Saturday's Grade 1 $465,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont at the Big A provided his main nemesis, Life Is Good, with his opportunity to record one final start before moving on to Keeneland for the World Championships.
Needless to say, he didn't disappoint.
In a performance about 180 degrees removed from Flightline's blistering display of speed at Del Mar, CHC and WinStar Farm's $4 million earner Life Is Good cruised to a comfortable 1 1/4-length wet-track victory over a persistent Law Professor in a performance that should have him on edge when the matchup everyone wants to see, Flightline vs. Life Is Good, unfolds in next month's 1 1/4-mile Classic.
"It was comfortable. We wanted to win, but we didn't want to put on a show," said Elliott Walden, WinStar Farm's CEO, president, and racing manager. "It's on to the next one. It wasn't too hard of a race, and it should set him up for the next one."
And that next one should be a classic in more ways than one.
"I'm looking forward to it," Walden said about the matchup with Flightline and the rest of the top dirt horses in training, including Grade 2 Lukas Classic winner Hot Rod Charlie and the 3-year-olds Epicenter, Taiba, and Rich Strike.
The odds board told the story of the Woodward, which has traditionally been run at Belmont Park. Against just three rivals after the scratch of Thomas Shelby, Life Is Good, a multiple Grade 1-winning son of Into Mischief trained by Todd Pletcher went off at the minimum 1-20 odds and led throughout.
Breaking from the rail, where there were some puddles of water on the sloppy, sealed track from 0.74 inches of rainfall, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. broke quickly with Life Is Good and moved out a couple of paths.
"He's quick out of there," Ortiz said. "There was not too much speed in the race and the first part of the race, there was a lot of water. We got a lot of rain. I wanted to get off the rail and was able to do it. He broke fast, and he stayed there (on the lead) the whole time."
The fractions were moderate as the 4-year-old bred by Gary and Mary West reeled off splits of :24.40 and :48.60.
"Part of his brilliance is being able to go fast and keep going," Pletcher said after the front-running Life Is Good turned in his slowest half-mile faction in 10 U.S. races. The bay colt posted a :46.84 opening half-mile in his previous start and win, the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. "It was the logical tactics for today, but I don't think it's his preferred running style. His real weapon is his high-cruising speed and the ability to keep going."
On the final turn, Twin Creek Racing Stables' Law Professor moved alongside Life Is Good to make matters interesting, but in the stretch under light urging from Ortiz, the bay colt moved away from the 26-1 shot to open a clear lead of 1 1/2 lengths in mid-stretch and stayed on top while covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.57.
"Heading to the quarter-pole, I thought I had a big shot to win it. But then Life Is Good hit another gear," said Jose Ortiz, who rode Law Professor, a 4-year-old gelding.
The $2.10 winner turned in a :12.33 final furlong in crossing the wire.
"It doesn't matter what the fractions are. He shows up. He's an incredible horse," Walden said.
Pletcher said Life Is Good will head to Keeneland Oct. 3 to begin preparations for the Breeders' Cup.
The victory was the ninth in 11 starts for Life Is Good and fourth grade 1 win, pushing his earnings to $4,361,700.
Law Professor, trained by Rob Atras, was second by 10 1/4 lengths.