On Eve of Pacific Classic, Sadler Just Doing His Job



Four years ago on the eve of the GI TVG Pacific Classic, the hunt for the heavy favorite amid the lettered labyrinth of Del Mar's backstretch ended at Barn J.

The stall, of course, belonged to Accelerate (Lookin At Lucky), a sleek, shiny copper penny of a colt, who carried weighty expectations that this was the year his trainer, John Sadler, would finally shrug off the voodoo that had cursed his previous attempts at the coveted prize.

It was also viewed as a new high altitude for a horse whose climb to the summit of the sport had been distinguished not by a dizzying free-climb to the top, but by careful, steady progress. Each foothold earned and true. A trail of sweat left behind at each contour.

The team wasn't without worries. The horse's regular rider, Victor Espinoza–widely seen as something of a key to Accelerate's latent talent–had that July taken a crunching fall aboard the Peter Miller trained Bobby Abu Dhabi, whose sudden death during training left Espinoza with a broken C3 vertebrae in his neck and fears, miraculously temporary, of paralysis.

In the end, Espinoza's replacement, Joel Rosario, has probably ridden no easier winner before or since, quickly putting what looked like the length of a football pitch between him and his dumbstruck rivals with a stunning kick around the home turn.

Four years on, and the hunt for this year's heavy favorite on the eve of the Del Mar showpiece once again leads to Barn J.

“Right now I'm excited, but I'm not overly excited,” said Sadler, Wednesday morning in his office, of Flightline (Tapit), whose stall-padded floor to ceiling as though housing a madman, faces the office door.

To be fair to Flightline, we're not talking Hannibal Lecter. “He's very content here,” Sadler said. “Loves Del Mar. He's just a nice horse to be around. But you know, he has his quirks. He can be a little aggressive in the stall.”

As for Sadler's declaration of studied equilibrium, it provides a measured counter-point to the celebrity fandom that follows each rare race-day sighting of the horse.

“We've got a couple more days,” Sadler added. “When you get in race week and everything's gone well, you just want to maintain that. That's really the message coming out of here this week. He doesn't have to run any faster. He's just got to run the same as he's been running.”

Words to strike fear into the heart of this weekend's competitors, all of whom will have witnessed Flightline's clinical evisceration of the 21 hapless victims strewn in his wake between races one to four.

If indeed Flightline turns up on Saturday and runs the same as he's been running, the race will prove a fascinating bookend to Sadler's own trajectory these past few years, catapulting a stellar record into even higher orbits.

Accelerate, of course, subsequently secured Sadler his first Breeders' Cup victory, in the GI Classic and a Horse of the Year garland would surely have followed were it not for a Triple Crown that went the way of Justify (Scat Daddy).

Hitherto winless in the Pacific Classic prior to Accelerate, the trainer has since secured another two victories in the race, courtesy of Higher Power (Medaglia d'Oro) in 2019 and Tripoli (Kitten's Joy) last year.

The GI Santa Anita “Big Cap” H. was another West Coast landmark oddly absent from Sadler's travel card until Accelerate righted that wrong. Stablemates Gift Box (Twirling Candy) and Combatant (Scat Daddy) followed up over the next two years. The likes of Catalina Cruiser (Union Rags), Rock Your World (Candy Ride), Cistron (The Factor) and Flagstaff (Speightstown) each have played a part in keeping the heat turned on full.

Then came Flightline, a stratospheric talent from whatever plain you're on. A big long-striding and magnificent comet, blink and you'll miss him bright. The numbers have been crunched, cogitated and digested. Four races, four wins. Average distance of victory is 10.9 lengths. Beyers from a Death Valley summer of 105, 114, 118, and 112.

“Is this the best horse I've ever trained? I say, yes. I don't hesitate,” Sadler said. “I've never trained a horse like this in my 30, 40-odd year career. But I don't compare him to other great horses. That's for the sports writers and the handicappers and Timeform.”

Which piqued this writer's curiosity. What kinds of stresses come with the responsibility of a horse who draws inevitable comparisons to the likes of Frankel (GB) (Galileo {Ire})? What new instruments has he brought to the trainer's toolbox? Would he have had the skills to harness Flightline's talents if the horse had landed in his barn, say, 20 years prior?

“The horse is teaching me all the time,” Sadler said, before extolling the virtues of patience.

The horse's coterie of owners–Hronis Racing, Summer Wind Equine, West Point Thoroughbreds, Siena Farm, and Woodford Racing–all receive a gold star.

Despite their multitude, “the owners always allow me to do as I see fit,” he said. “It's all worked so far. So far so good.”

Pressed further, the trainer threw up his hands–the wrong week to wheel out the therapist's couch.

“You're asking me to be super reflective and conceptualize a lot of that stuff, but right now I don't allow myself to do that. I just do my job right now,” Sadler said. “Might be a better interview next week.”

Fair enough stick with the tangibles, like Flightline's last race, the GI Hill 'n' Dale Met Mile on GI Belmont S. day, when a sticky break propelled the horse into stop-start opening furlongs.

Given Flightline's lack of match practice, could the events of the Met Mile have been a blessing in disguise?

“People say that, which is fine. It probably was. But I sure like to break clean. I don't like to put any, you know,” Sadler said, pausing either for effect or the right words, “obstacles in the way.” This explains Flightline's homework assignments at Del Mar this summer, which included a five-furlong bullet from the gate at the end of July.

Then comes another tangible–the as yet unchartered distance of the Pacific Classic. “It's a big ask, you know, to go from a mile to a mile and a quarter,” Sadler said.

Though the stamina of lesser horses can be stretched out, explained the trainer, “when I talk about really good mile-and-a-quarter horses, first of all, they have to have the innate ability to run that far.”

With Flightline, “I've just got to hold him where he is,” he added. “On breeze days, you'll note that his gallops out are very good.”

Much has been made of the team's efforts at reining in Flightline's innate exuberance–a balancing act perhaps too easily under-appreciated.

Stifling too much of a horse's natural quirk and athleticism of a morning can sour them as fast as cream left out in the sun. Let the throttle out too far too often, just watch as the wheels fall off.

Juan Leyva, Sadler's assistant, has done a “beautiful job with him” of a morning, says the trainer, calling it a case of “two minds meeting.”

“He's getting more relaxed, you know,” Sadler added, of Flightline. “He is maturing. He's showing he can carry himself in a more relaxed manner. That's what we're seeing, which is a normal progression.”

As for Saturday, “I see a small field, but a very good field. I know these horses intimately and they're very good,” said Sadler. “We have a lot of respect for every horse in there.”

The Bob Baffert-trained Country Grammer (Tonalist), this year's G1 Dubai World Cup winner given a timely pipe-opener in the GII San Diego H. early in the meet, receives plaudits for his prior top-flight victories over the trip.

Sadler has watched the John Shirreffs-trained Express Train (Union Rags) “throughout his career,” he said. “He's a very nice horse.”

As for Ed Moger's Stilleto Boy (Shackleford), vanquished in Flightline's GI Malibu S. last December, “I like him a lot,” said Sadler.

But talk switches back to the horse mere feet away, saved from himself by padded walls and kept from the public's gaze by a series of well-documented issues and events. Sadler has kept the door open to a 5-year-old campaign. How serious are those overtures?

“We'll get into Saturday and then see how it goes.”

Now, about that interview next week…

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