Sadler Talks Stable Stars, Big Race Targets, Hollendorfer and Safety Measures

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John Sadler | Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire

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It was back in 1988 that John Sadler began his stake race winning spree at Del Mar, when the mild-mannered speedball Olympic Prospect took the then-$75,000 Bing Crosby H., prompting jockey Alex Solis afterwards to breathlessly exclaim, “I never rode a horse that fast in my life.”

When given this little factoid at his Del Mar barn one recent morning–a full 31 years after the event–Sadler assumed the look of someone who’d just been told that water wasn’t wet. “I wouldn’t think so–it’s got to be before that,” he said of his inaugural Del Mar stake win, alluding to the successes he’d enjoyed at the track during his first 10 years with a trainer’s license. “I remember winning some stakes that aren’t here now.”

But true it is, and in the more than three decades since, Sadler has notched another 71 black-type victories at the track that put him clearly in the fourth spot on the all-time stakes-winning list there, behind the likes of Charlie Whittingham and Ron McAnally, and ahead of the likes of Bobby Frankel. Good company to keep, by any stretch.

Five of those wins have arrived this summer alone, during a slingshot start to the meet that includes a second consecutive victory in the GII San Diego H. for the strapping quarterback of a chestnut, Catalina Cruiser (Union Rags).

“Maybe he was showing some of the effects of his trip back east,” said Sadler, pointing to the 5-year-old’s seasonal debut win in the GII True North S. at Belmont Park–in near track-record time, no less–as a possible explainer for why this year’s victory had less of the scorched-earth imprint as last year’s, when he gave the opposition a near seven-length drubbing.

Nevertheless, Catalina Cruiser “had a good work [Saturday, going four furlongs in :48.20], and he’s going to have another one next weekend, and then we’re going to decide what race we’re going to go in,” Sadler said. What race indeed, for Sadler pinpointed the GII Pat O’Brien S. at Del Mar (which he won last year), the GI Forego S. at Saratoga, or a possible tilt at the GI Pacific Classic, which the trainer annexed 12 months ago with future GI Breeders’ Cup Classic champ, Accelerate.

While the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic might appear the most attractive target, Sadler is all too aware that the horse has yet to race further than 1 1/16 miles. The next seven days will prove crucial. “He’ll have a long work next weekend and we’ll see how it goes,” Sadler said. “He’s a very good work horse, and I think it’s more about whether I’ve really bounced him back from that East Coast trip. We’ll just see how his energy is, see how the week goes.”

If Catalina Cruiser bypasses the Pacific Classic, his trainer has two more arrows pointed towards the race, including Campaign (Curlin), winner of the GII Cougar II H. early in the meet, and a definite for the Del Mar showpiece, Sadler said.

“[Campaign] was fourth in the [GI] Santa Anita H. with no pace, so, if he gets pace in front of him in the Pacific Classic, he’s a dangerous horse because he has no problems with the distance,” he said. That the track is currently deep and slow can only play to the horse’s strengths, Sadler added. “He’s a real stayer.”

Another possible Pacific Classic contender is Higher Power (Medaglia d’Oro), recently second in the Wickerr S. on the turf. “He really trains good on the dirt. He’s been on the grass his last two starts, but if he trains like we think he can, he might run in the Pacific Classic also,” he said.

“Essentially, I’m going with the Baffert position: we’re going to see who’s training best at the time and pick the race we want to go in,” Sadler added, about his cards-close-to-chest attitude towards the Pacific Classic. “We’ll see how it goes.”

In contrast, Sadler has a much clearer itinerary in mind for Ollie’s Candy (Candy Ride {Arg}), recent game winner of the GI Clement L. Hirsch S. in her third start for the trainer. Ollie’s Candy was moved to Sadler’s barn when her former handler, William Morey, was suspended 45 days by the California Horse Racing Board after his assistant was found guilty of administering a supplement called Blood Buffer to two horses on race day.

“When she came down to Del Mar she had a brilliant work over the track, and I said, ‘I think she likes this dirt course here,'” said Sadler about Ollie’s Candy’s works prior to her Grade I victory. “The day after her win, the owner calls me and says, ‘What can we do to get the Breeders’ Cup run at Del Mar?'”

The GII Zenyatta S. at Santa Anita is the next intended target for the daughter of Candy Ride, as a springboard for the GI Breeders’ Cup Distaff. “She’s improving, so, hopefully she’ll keep improving,” said Sadler.

Another Breeders’ Cup-bound horse is Cistron (The Factor), recent winner of the GI Bing Crosby S. “He’s found his best stride at five. He came of the Bing Crosby beautifully. He’s a very sound horse at five. A very strong horse.”

For much of his career, Cistron was campaigned on the turf, until Sadler made the switch to dirt when Santa Anita pulled the plug on its 6 1/2-furlong downhill turf course this spring. Since then, Cistron’s two for three, including an earlier victory in the GII Kona Gold S.

“Sometimes it’s not genius,” said Sadler, about the circumstances that led to the surface switch. “Sometimes it’s just things working out.”

This year’s GI Santa Anita H. winner Gift Box (Twirling Candy) has been temporarily sidelined with a “couple minor issues” since finishing fourth in the GII Stephen Foster H. said Sadler, but the horse is gearing up for a more active end-of-season campaign.

“We’ll get him ready for Santa Anita, probably prep him in the Awesome Again S.,” with a view to then running in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, said Sadler. “There’s been a lot of stop-start this winter. He didn’t get the best trip in the Stephen Foster, yet still finished fourth.”

In the long-term, it’s possible Gift Box might have to dust off the old passport, as Sadler mooted the idea of running the son of Twirling Candy in the proposed $15-$20 million dirt race in Saudi Arabia next February. “Why wouldn’t I?” he said.

The trainer’s admirable start to the meet has played out, of course, against a state racing industry that’s changing skin with almost chameleon-like speed.

One of those skin-changes involves the various safety protocols Del Mar has implemented this year, building on the work done the prior two years–a primary reason, said Sadler, behind Del Mar’s good safety record so far this year, with one horse catastrophically injured as a result of a breakdown. “The trainers have been great about accepting all of the protocols and such,” he said. Nevertheless, “There’s a lot more that Del Mar could be doing for safety, and I’ve talked to them about it,” he added.

When pressed for specifics, Sadler replied, “That’s for behind closed doors,” although he mentioned that it includes “structural changes” to make the place safer. “It’s tough because it involves money, so, hopefully they’ll put the money where it’s needed.”

Given the topic, there was no avoiding the issue of Jerry Hollendorfer, recently awarded judicial permission to run horses at Del Mar. The facility barred him from doing so after The Stronach Group and NYRA had imposed similar bans in light of six Hollendorfer-trained horses being catastrophically injured at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields within a six-month period.

“We were really pleased that Jerry was able to get back. He’s lost a great portion of his business, which was sad,” Sadler said, before discussing more broadly the view from the backstretch of events these past few months.

“It’s been a tough year–we’ve been under siege, some of it unfairly,” he said. “To say all the problems this winter were all the trainers’ fault, I thought the trainers were scapegoated. There’s a lot of things that went wrong, and a lot of reasons why, but it’s not just the trainers.”

“It’s a very important time for California racing,” Sadler added. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

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