In the lead up to the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park, XBTV and Santa Anita Park sat down with trainer John Sadler to discuss his path to success, his thoughts on winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Horse of the Year candidate and Pegasus contender, Accelerate.
Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer. How does that sound?
“Sounds good to me.”
I mean, after everything you went through leading up to this year’s Breeder’s Cup, how gratifying was it for you to get it done in the classic?
“It was really exciting. You work all year for that and to see it happen is just great. But, I was prepared for anything. I’m a professional. Win, lose or draw we were gonna show up and do our thing.”
How gratifying was it for you to win that big one after having pretty much a horrible day up until then?
“Well it wasn’t really that horrible. We were second in the Mile Turf; Catapult ran a great race. So we were really happy. When he ran second, and you’re in with Sir Michael Stouts and all of the world-class turf horses, that run was a good second. It was an okay day going in, and for Accelerate to win the Classic made it a great day.”
What happened with Catalina Cruiser (in the Dirt Mile), do you know?
“Came out of his race a little dinged up, so we’re going to give him a little vacation and get him ready for 2019.”
A lot had been made about the fact that you hadn’t won a Breeders’ Cup race. Was it a relief, or was it a, ‘It’s done, don’t talk to me about it.’ What did that feel like?
“It was hard to really gauge how it felt. Part of it was a relief, and part of it was…don’t think about how it feels because if you think about how it felt, you’d probably come apart.”
It was emotional for you.
I want to take you right back to the beginning when you first started. What do you remember about your first trip to the racetrack? Because you came into it a bit later, you didn’t really grow up on the track.
“No, I was involved with show horses and I was an equestrian right here locally. And, my parents had friends that came to the track. I remember the first time going to San Anita, and just loving it. I used to walk around and, like a lot of people, just looked at the discarded tickets to see if I could find a winning one just laying around. So I’ve gone to the track from a young age and have always enjoyed it.”
What did your parents do?
“My dad was a stockbroker, and my mother basically a stay at home mom.”
No horses at all?
“No horses at all.”
Brothers and sisters?
“Yeah, older brother Tom, who’s a great lawyer, recently retired, and my sister lives in Nashville. She got to come up to the Breeders’ Cup, so that was a great thrill. And, I have a younger brother David, who is a lot of help to me, and dog sits.”
What made you fall in love with horses in the first place?
“I just kind of fell into it. My parents rented a home in Palos Verdes one summer, and there were two horses in the back yard. I told my mother, I said, ‘I’d like to ride those horses.’ And she said, ‘Well if you’re going to ride them, you have to take riding lessons because I don’t want you to fall on your head and crack it open.’ So I started taking riding lessons in the summer down in Palos Verdes, and when we came back I pursued riding.”
Tell me about your show jumping. Didn’t you try out for the US Olympic Team?
“I did. They had the screening trials out there in Westlake Village, and I was hoping I could make the Olympic Team, and in those days it was kind of subjective who they chose to go to the Olympics, so I didn’t make it and that’s actually what kind of flipped me into the racehorses.”
How disappointing was that for you as a teenager thinking you were going to the Olympics?
“Well, they chose kids whose parents could donate money. You could see that right away. That was a little disheartening. I was also getting really tall at the time, so I thought I was kind of outgrowing the show horses. I loved working with them though so it seemed like a natural transition to the race track for me.”
What was your first foray into actual racetrack life?
“My very first job was for (trainer) Tom Pratt when I came to the track, during high school. I think it was between my sophomore and junior year, I walked hots at Del Mar. My parents were friends with someone who had the Olympic job at San Anita in ’84, so there were great connections in Pasadena to the racing world.”
Unlike a lot of the trainers, you worked for a vet before taking out your trainer’s license. You worked with Doctor Jack Robbins. How was that and what took you to work for a vet?
“He was a friend of my parents. My father worked for him way back in the day. He knew my father a little bit socially in Pasadena, so when he offered me a job I jumped at it. He was a great vet. He was kind of the leader in California for many, many years and you’ve seen the lineage. His son Jay trained, and his other sons, Tom and Donny, have both had big jobs in the industry. Tom Robbins is still the Director of Racing at Del Mar.”
How much did that help you when you went on to be a trainer?
“It was instrumental. I learned so much here because we worked for really good trainers in that era. Every day I was in the barn of Noble Threewitt, Gary Jones, Joe Manzi, Ronnie McAnally, Buster Millerick, Keith Stucki, Wayne Stucki, Ralph West, Gene Cleveland…So we were in and out of those barns all day and I like to think that I stole a little bit from every guy we ever worked for.”
What about Charlie Whittingham? Would he be the gold mark of trainers back then?
“Yeah, definitely. In that era, Charlie had all the best horses and won all the big races. But it was a very strong colony of trainers in that era. The really good trainers, in my opinion. Tommy Doyle was a classic, even though we didn’t do his vet work, Gordon Campbell was a great old trainer…They’re all fun guys and really good trainers.”
How did you hook up with Eddie Gregson? He really gave you your start, sending you up north on your own?
“Yeah, my parents had one-thirtieth of a share of a racehorse, and he trained a horse for us. We knew similar people. I wanted to start a string in Northern California, and he asked me if I’d go up there and take some horses for him.”
It seems like you fit a lot in, in a small amount of time. You took out your trainer’s license and won your first race at 22, but you already seemed like a seasoned veteran.
“Well, I was a young trainer at 22 in northern California, but it was a great time for us. A bunch of young guys up there. I mean Jerry Hollendorfer only had three horses. Can you imagine that?”
How was Jerry back then?
“Yes. Absolutely wild. But he’s a different person today. Look at the job he’s done.”
When you think about how you started and about how Jerry started, you’re one of the few that gets to the track early. I mean you’re there at 4:30 a.m. Jerry’s there early, Bill Spawr is there early, but everyone else comes later.
“How everybody approaches their work is different, and it doesn’t mean it’s better, it’s just different. So we’re kind of… That core group is still kind of doing it the old-fashioned way. That’s what I enjoy, so that’s the way I do it.”
What does a normal day look like for you schedule-wise?
“I usually go to bed around 8 p.m., and I usually get to the track around 4:00 a.m. So it’s early to bed and early to rise. After the track it’s come home and have a little lunch, take a nap, and either go back to the track or go onto other things, depending on the day of the week. If there’s racing, it depends on how many horses you have running, that kind of stuff.”
You’ve had a lot of success primarily with sprinters. I asked you about this the other day and your face lit up like a kid in a candy store. Tell me about Valiant Pete.
“Valiant Pete was a Cal-bred. He was trained out here, bred here in Mira Loma, and owned by Mira Loma Farm. He was a giant Quarter Horse. He was so fast. And he was one of my good early sprinters. When I started off I was training for a lot of California breeders and that’s what they were breeding primarily at the time. So, whatever they’ve given me over the years, that’s what I adapt to.”
Tell me how the match race came about with Valiant Pete, and who was the other horse?
Griswold. How did that come about?
“Tom Knust was a racing secretary at the time and it was his idea. He was thinking of doing a match race. There was a really good Quarter Horse, an 870 horse named Griswold, and he put the idea together of having a match race.”
What were your thoughts going in? Because this was a hundred thousand, winner takes all.
“Yeah, we were excited about it because it was so novel. There were some things that I liked about it. I thought the fact that it was run at San Anita would give us a good chance to win. The Quarter Horses tend to run on a little bit harder surface, so I thought if we had the race at San Anita I could get the job done.”
And you did. The winner take all is something that never really happened at San Anita and you beat a Quarter Horse in world record time.
“It was really fun. I remember it like it was yesterday, the little details of it. Our starter here at San Anita, Tucker Slender, worked closely with Valiant Pete. We’d schooled the horse quite a bit before the race at the gate. Because you know, in a sprint and a dash like that, the start is everything. So even if we didn’t break in front, I knew if we broke close to the Quarter Horse we’d have a good chance to wear him down and that’s what happened.”
It was a fantastic race. I watched it just the other day and it was just fantastic. So halfway through your career, it’s almost like you got pegged as a sprinter trainer, as in you could only train sprinters. How did you turn that around?
“Just with the horses you get. As my career developed and I got better horses or the ability to buy better horses, you go looking for the classic type horses. So it’s just a natural progression.”
Your stable got bigger and bigger. In 2013 you won more races than you’d ever won, I think 106 races, and then you did something that no one really does anymore. In the age of super trainers, with stables getting bigger and bigger, you’re like, ‘No, I’m not doing this. I’m downsizing my stable.’ Why?
“It’s a lot of work, and you want to enjoy it. If you get too big, I don’t think it’s any fun. I like to train horses, I like to enjoy them, and I just decided I didn’t want to be bigger. So we downsized a few years ago. You want to have really top horses. We’re focusing more on quality than quantity.”
Do you feel that at this stage in your life that you just want to enjoy life a little bit more and not work perhaps dog and bone all day long?
“Yeah, I want to lead a balanced life. I want to eat healthy and go to the gym and enjoy some private time. So, we have a good rhythm right now.”
In 2010, you meet Kosta Hronis, and his brother Pete. How did that happen? Because he had never owned a horse.
“An usher introduced us.”
“Yeah. He came down and said, ‘I have a couple guys that would like to meet you.’ And I said, ‘Okay, well bring them over after the fifth race.’ I had three or four runners on a Saturday at San Anita, and they came down and we sat down and talked a little bit. There was a natural bond there right from the beginning. They have a history with Pasadena. I think it was their uncle owned a men’s clothing shop in San Marino and he was pretty famous. So I’d heard of that and they talked about their time in Pasadena. I said, ‘Okay, the best way to get you started is to claim. Because if we claim a horse you’ll have action pretty soon and you’ll see if you like it or not.’ So, we started very slow, they liked it, I liked them, and as things kind of went on, we just grew it.”
How many horses do they have with you now?
“A lot. We don’t give a number, we just say a lot. They have a good size stable and they really enjoy it.”
How fun is it for you to train for them? It seems like you’re more friends than trainer and client right now. It seems like you’re almost like a little family.
“Well, we’re very close because they’re just tremendous people. They’re very family oriented and they love the business so it’s a really good relationship. It’s a lot of pressure for me personally because when they give you the reins to the buggy, I’m driving it. So I want to do a good job.”
How do you handle the pressure?
“I’m just used to it. Having done this for a long time, nothing really seems to throw me off.”
Are you superstitious? Do you wear a blue shirt every single day?
I’ve only ever seen you in a blue shirt.
Is that a superstitious thing? Is your closet full of blue shirts?
“Absolutely. And you know, it’s funny…you start carrying little things in your pocket. Right now I have two lucky chapsticks because they’ve been lucky, it’s been a good second half of this year. I have a coin from Spain. A mystery person showed up at Churchill and gave this coin to my foreman and said, ‘Give this to John, its great luck.’ And then he said, ‘I’m a Marshall from Western Kentucky.’ So if things are going well and lucky, I’ll stick with it.”
And they’re in your pocket now?
“Well, I took them out for this interview.”
So you are superstitious.
Well, that’s pretty cool. So everything was on you for Breeders’ Cup that day? All of your luck, the blue shirt, the two lucky chapsticks, everything.
“Yeah. Also, Stephanie Hronis (Kosta’s wife) gave me a really nice scarf at the beginning of the week, because you’re in Louisville, in November, and it is freezing. I said, ‘Okay, this is a lucky scarf,’ and I wore it right through.”
What are some of the things that you see around the track nowadays that you would want to change if you could?
“Well, I just look at the big picture of what we need in California. We need one more, big, racetrack opened up. We need Del Mar year-round to really thrive here in California. We’re doing remarkably well out here with what we have to work with.”
If I walked down your shedrow I’m going to see people that have been in your barn for a very, very long time. What’s the key to keeping these people around? These guys have been with you for years.
“The key to keeping your help a long time is to be consistent with them and to like them. And I like the people that work for me, they’ve been with me for a long time. I know their kids, and sometimes I’ve got multi-generational employees in there. As much time as you spend together if you don’t like them that would be crazy. So I really like the people that work for me.”
Do you have any regrets in your life thus far, things that you wish you could’ve done differently?
“Not many. I think the only thing is that maybe when I was really young, maybe I would’ve travelled the world a little bit to see some different places because now you really can’t go some places.”
Where would you like to visit?
“Well, say you wanted to go through Iran or Iraq or something like that, we won’t really get that done in our lifetime. But I don’t have a lot of regrets. I’ve done some traveling. I try to do a trip every year, so we get around to see a little bit of what’s going on.”
What do you remember about your first horse?
“I remember winning my first race in Golden Gate 1979 with a horse called Top Take. Daryl Vienna sent him up to me in Northern California and he won a really nice race and that was my first win.”
Do you have a favorite horse that stands out and that you hold near and dear to your heart?
“Well, I’ve had lots of them. I love all of the horses that I’ve trained. I think you come particularly close to the ones that have been in your barn for a long time and they’re good horses, those are the ones that you think of a lot. Right now my brain would obviously go to Accelerate, and then before that Stellar Wind, and before that Switch. Any horse that’s been in there and run a good race and you’ve been able to keep.”
How would you best describe Stellar Wind?
“Elegance. She was like a deer.”
And if you had to describe Accelerate, how would you describe him?
“Soldier. Right on the front line battling everything that came up to him. He’s run against two Baffert horses every time for the last three years and beat them all down. So it’s really been amazing.”
How would you make a case if you’re arguing for Horse of the Year? Accelerate versus Justify. Because four months ago it was a slam dunk for Justify.
“Well, I mean, the case I would make is that he’s been good all year long, he’s been running the classic American distance of a mile and a quarter. Usually the high weight in the handicaps, he was giving weight away. Quite a few pounds. So I just think his portfolio is so good this year, I think he could be a deserving horse.
“I’m not knocking Justify in any way. It was a great campaign with Justify. But if you look at Accelerate, and you look at his speed through the years, there’s a lot of metrics in there that he comes out on top of.”
What do you do for fun? Movies?
“I’m taking tennis lessons again.”
Oh. Are you any good?
“Not really. I can be good.”
So you play tennis. Do you golf?
“No, don’t golf. Just normal stuff, like any normal person. You know. Movies. Exercise, eating out. That’s about it.”
“Too late at night.”
If I had to ask Madonna or Lady Gaga, who wins that one?
“Yeah. I mean who knew she could sing? I mean did you see A Star is Born?”
It was great.
“Yeah, good movie.”
There’s some art around the house, is it a passion?
“Yeah. I have a ton of stuff that I’ve collected over a lifetime, so everything has a little meaning.”
Do you know where you’ll put your Breeders’ Cup Classic cup trophy when you get it?
“No, not yet.”
Baseball or football?
Did you just jump on the Rams bandwagon?
“I didn’t just jump on. We had no pro team here for 16, 17 years. So when they came back I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna be a Rams fan.’”
How did you feel that first season?
“I went to two games the first season. It was just horrible. The Colosseum, you could see why they’re getting out of there. So I’ve been watching on TV this season, but when they get the new place built I’ll be there for a game.”
Beer or wine?
If you could think of one person to sit down and have dinner with, dead or alive, who would it be?
“Wow, that’s a heavy question. Jesus Christ.”
Good answer. Are you a religious person?
“Not particularly, but it’d still be an interesting dinner. That’s a hard one. There are so many people, fascinating people.”
I’d love to sit down and have dinner with Charlie Whittingham, but you probably already did.
“Well, kind of. If you were in the bar with him you heard the stories. All those guys from that era had great stories and were fascinating times. Unfortunately, you can’t tell them all.”
When you started in racing, what were your goals?
“To be a good professional.”
What is your goal now?
“To continue to be a good professional.”
What would you tell your 30-year-old self?
“Good question. I don’t know. You might tell your 30-year-old self it’s a lot of work.”
Is it everything you thought it would be?
“I think so. I mean I’m pretty happy. We’re coming off a great year, we’ve got a great year coming up. So I think it’s everything I thought it would be.”
What are the hardest days?
“Hardest days is when you have a horse get injured, you maybe have an employee get injured. When things don’t go well, those are the hard days. But like anything, you deal with them and move forward.”