With cameraman Tom Stone walking backward and aiming a big lens in his face, trainer John Sadler put up a mock stiff arm and laughed. “He’s a good guy now, it’s fine,” Sadler said about Stone, whose job frequently involves stalking the trainers of Breeders’ Cup contenders win or lose.
Sadler and Stone know all about losing, on camera.
Until Saturday, in the last of 14 races on the two-day card at Churchill Downs, that’s all Sadler did at the Breeders’ Cup. A string of 44 starts (and losses) over 30 years, ended in a big way as 5-2 favorite Accelerate swarmed to the front at the top of the stretch and won the $6 million Classic for owner Hronis Racing and jockey Joel Rosario. A length behind the winner, Gunnevera closed for second with Thunder Snow third after 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.93.
Somewhere, an elephant left a room. And a monkey climbed down off a back.
Based in California, Sadler never flinched through the losses (including Stellar Wind’s neck defeat when bumped hard in the stretch of the 2015 Distaff), the questions, the comparisons to other trainers with more wins. Saturday, he finally got to talk about a Breeders’ Cup triumph.
“I want to be honest with the press and promote the sport, this is a great sport, a great event,” he said. “Regardless of whether I win one or not, horse racing is what we’re about so it was really fun for me today and even if I didn’t win I’d be back at work tomorrow.
“We’ve had a lot of years we were second and third and all that stuff,” he said. “I was fairly relaxed (coming in). The horse was good, I just hoped for all the little things to go right and they did.”
Breaking from the outside stall in a field of 14, Accelerate found a spot in fifth behind Mendelssohn, McKinzie, West Coast and Thunder Snow through early fractions of :22.68 and :46.46. The leaders got 6 furlongs in 1:10.61 and still Rosario stalked. Four wide midway on the turn, he was on the move and in command turning for home and put away Thunder Snow in the final furlong while Gunnevera worked into the race.
“He put in a big run today,” said the jockey of his first Classic winner. “I had to ride him the whole backside to keep after him because he wants you to do that. He was responding really well to everything. This is a good horse.”
Rosario got aboard in August for the Pacific Classic after Victor Espinoza’s injury. Sadler said he called Rosario’s agent Ron Anderson. Anderson said he made a pitch. Not that it matters, all three men go way back.
“It’s special, you know,” said Rosario. “When I was in California John gave me a lot of opportunities, a lot of good horses to ride. I used to work with him a lot, so to win this for him I’m happy for him. It’s good to make it happen for him.”
“I’m so happy for John, said the agent. “He’s a good trainer, a good guy. He deserves this.”
Anderson remembers Sadler when the trainer walked hots for trainer Tom Pratt at Santa Anita in the 1970s and right through jobs with Dr. Jack Robbins and David Hoffmans. Sadler saddled his first winner in 1979. He’s gone to the top of the game with more than 2,400 winners, $113 million in total purses, multiple meet championships and major wins in California and beyond.
“We’ve been friendly and working together for a long time,” Anderson said. “He’s a good guy, takes care of his help. He’s got help that have been with him for 30 years. You know he’s a good guy because he’s got people like that. Grooms and gallop people.”
Sadler’s Breeders’ Cup record read like Jim Kelly’s Super Bowl mark, however, with eight thirds and four seconds through last year. The 2018 version started like the others, with losses by Selcourt (12th in the Filly and Mare Sprint), Catalina Cruiser (fifth in the Dirt Mile) and Catapult (second in the Mile).
Then everything changed.
“This is what I do every day, every year for my whole career,” Sadler said in the post-race press conference, “so to really get the big one, I couldn’t ask for a better day.”
Fittingly, Sadler ultimately credited his horse for coming through when it mattered. Bred in Kentucky by Mike Abraham, Accelerate sold for $380,000 at Keeneland September in 2014. He won three times as a 3-year-old in 2016, and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Last year, he won one of eight and wound up eighth on Breeders’ Cup Day.
“We took good care of him at 3 and 4,” Sadler said of why the horse has improved in 2018. “He came out of the Breeders’ Cup last year with a little crack in his hoof. We took care of that and since then he’s been remarkable all year. This horse is an older horse this year at 5. He’s been consistent and I thought he’d be consistent again in this race and he didn’t let us down.”