Juan Leyva in Full Flight for Breeders' Cup

Flightline training beneath Juan Leyva at Keeneland | Coady

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LEXINGTON, KY – Juan Leyva has a first-class 'Flight' for this year's Championships.

The assistant trainer to John Sadler and former Breeders' Cup winning-jockey is the regular morning partner of unbeaten sensation and 3-5 Classic morning-line favorite Flightline (Tapit). The highest-rated racehorse in the world has won his first five starts by an astounding combined margin of 62 3/4 lengths, led by a jaw-dropping 19 1/4-length win while making his two-turn debut in the GI Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Getting the monster that is Flightline to harness some of that brilliant early speed, however, has been another story.

“With him, it's always like, 'How do you ride a hurricane?'” Sadler said in these pages ahead of Flightline's spectacular GI Met Mile win at Belmont Park in June. “Juan's been working with him and getting him to relax.”

Well, how exactly does Leyva do it?

“In the beginning, he was always very keen to do more than what was wanted from him,” Leyva said. “It's just been a work in progress with him every day trying to get him to settle down. If it were up to him, he'd go out there and just breeze every day.”

Longtime Sadler client and Flightline co-owner Kosta Hronis echoes those same sentiments.

“He wanted to go full blast and run as hard as he could all of the time,” said Hronis, who campaigns Flightline along with Siena Farm, breeder Summer Wind Equine, West Point Thoroughbreds and Woodford Racing.

“I was watching the Pacific Classic replay on TVG and they were showing a Flightline work earlier in the year where he's just dragging Juan around the racetrack. Juan looks like he has both feet on the brakes. But then you see his last workout before the Pacific Classic and he's turned Flightline into such a relaxed and professional horse to where he's push-button now. It's a blessing that Juan is getting some recognition for what he's done. Not only for Flightline, but for the barn in general. He's done a great job.”

With a $1-million pricetag as a Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling and a growing reputation that he could back it up coming off the farm–albeit a bit belatedly after suffering a nasty wound to his hind end as a youngster–the expectations were always sky high for Flightline upon joining the Sadler barn in December of his 2-year-old season.

“The first day that I sat on him, I thought, 'Wow, what an amazing animal,'” Leyva said. “Just the way he moves is so different from other horses. And I've been at this for quite a while now, so I draw from experience of being on some good horses in the past. And he was just something that I had never experienced.”

Born in Mexico and raised in Riverside, California, Leyva, like so many, was introduced to the sport by his father. The 38-year-old didn't immediately envision racing as a potential career path though.

“I liked horses and I liked riding them, but I didn't think that I would be doing what I'm doing now,” Leyva said. “When I was very young, my dad had some Quarter Horses and he would match race them. In those kind of races, you put up your own money. He didn't really trust the jockeys, so he told me, 'You're gonna be the jockey.'”

He continued, “I did it to please him, but when I won my first match race, it was just such an exhilarating feeling of joy and triumph that the bug just bit me. Once I got old enough, I quit school and focused all my energy on the horses.”

Still just in his late teenage years, Leyva began making the rounds on the backstretch at Santa Anita and was eager to show off his handywork from riding in the match races for his old man.

“My agent takes me to John's barn to work a horse,” Leyva said. “And me being a young kid, I wanted to show John that I could switch sticks–hit right, hit left. So, that's exactly what I did.”

As you can imagine, this did not go over well with the boss.

“I come back and John says, 'What the heck were you doing! We don't hit our horses in the mornings!' Leyva said. “And at that point, I thought I blew my chance at Santa Anita.”

He didn't. Sadler gave Leyva another chance the following morning–he kept the stick in his back pocket this time, thankfully–and a friendship was beginning to take shape. Leyva launched his career as a jockey in 2000, and, before relocating to South Florida, Sadler offered him a job to work as an assistant. He declined. At least for the time being.

“I wanted to ride races, I wanted to pursue my dream,” Leyva said. “I left, but through it all, we always stayed in contact. He always checked up on me.”

Leyva celebrated his biggest victory aboard 20-1 Musical Romance–ironically over the Sadler-trained Switch–in the 2011 GI Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Churchill Downs. He previously experienced the thrill of riding on the first Saturday in May in Louisville, piloting Storm in May to an unplaced finish in the 2007 GI Kentucky Derby. “I thought I had reached the top with Musical Romance, but I don't think I had even seen it until now with this horse [Flightline],” Leyva said.

Sadler once again “checked up” on Leyva a year or two following his victory at the Championships. He wasn't ready to hang up the reins just yet though.

“At the time, I still had some business and I was doing OK,” Leyva said. “I told him that I didn't want to quit riding yet. I was still enjoying it.”

Battling weight issues and suffering from a decline in business following the retirement of Musical Romance and Storm in May's trainer Bill Kaplan, Leyva decided to call it quits in 2017. In all, Leyva won 803 races for a total of $22,942,868 in earnings. Trainer David Fawkes was the first to offer him a job as an assistant in South Florida, but Leyva had other ideas.

“After talking it over with my wife, I called John and said, 'I'm ready to come home,'” Leyva said.

Immediately thrown into the deep end, Leyva was put in charge of Sadler's 20-horse string at Los Alamitos. Not exactly what he had in mind when agreeing to return to the West Coast to serve as his assistant.

“I basically got a crash course in being a trainer,” Leyva said. “I went from riding races the past week to having 20 horses and trying to manage a set list, riders and grooms, etc. Little by little, I started doing my thing. But I didn't come to California to be at Los Al. I came to California to learn how to train horses from John.”

Fast forward six months and school was officially in session at the 'Great Race Place.'

“When he brought me to Santa Anita, it was like going from elementary school to high school–now you're in with the big dogs,” Leyva said with a laugh.

Leyva rode champion Accelerate (Lookin At Lucky) ahead of his win in the 2018 GI Breeders' Cup Classic, which emphatically put an end to Sadler's well-documented 0-for-44 winless mark at the Championships. Leyva also began working with Sadler-trained standouts such as Hronis Racing's MGSW Catalina Cruiser (Union Rags) and Woodford Racing's MGSW and GI Breeders' Cup Mile runner-up Catapult (Kitten's Joy).

“I was very lucky that from the beginning when I went to Santa Anita, John had a lot of nice horses,” Leyva said. “I was able to work alongside them and really recognize what it takes to get to those kind of big races.

“Once I got to Santa Anita, that's where I really started soaking everything in that John was doing. And the great thing about John is that when we're doing something with the horses, he always takes time to explain to me why we're doing things. He's a very good teacher.”

As Flightline puts his unblemished record on the line in Saturday's $6-million centerpiece at Keeneland, Hronis summed it up best.

“Juan's been a great student of John's,” Hronis said. “And Flightline has been a great student of Juan's.”

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