John Sadler, who grew up in and around Pasadena, went on to become one of the country’s most esteemed horse trainers.
By Brandon Lomenzo Black
Photos by Katie Jones
Under the cover of moonlight and with a blanket of fog enveloping the hallowed grounds of Santa Anita Park, the ¬flurry of highly orchestrated activity inside Barn 56, home to renowned thoroughbred trainer and Pasadena native John Sadler, begins like clockwork at 4 a.m. It’s the last Thursday in October and the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., lingers on the horizon. The prestigious race draws the best thoroughbreds from around the world. The Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle has eluded Sadler throughout his stellar 40- year career.
Sadler has multiple entries in the race, including Catalina Cruiser in the Dirt Mile, Accelerate in the Classic, Catapult in the Mile, and Selcourt in the Filly & Mare Sprint.
The Breeders’ Cup is eight days away but regardless of the stakes, it’s business as usual inside the barn. The clatter of the grooms removing chain links and then latching them again to access each stall adds to the chorus of shifting hooves. Exercise riders check their tack and talk among themselves over coffee. The symphony of noises plays throughout the barn.
Since becoming a racehorse trainer in 1979, Sadler has accumulated more than 2,400 career wins, surpassing $130 million in purses. He is an indelible figure in the sport, known for consistently delivering winning thoroughbreds for his clients. Like many good stories, Sadler’s first chapter was written during a summer in his youth. He and his family were in Palos Verdes, house sitting for friends vacationing in Europe.
“I was drawn to horses at a very young age,” Sadler says, fondly remembering the two horses in their friends’ backyard. “I told my mother I would really like to ride those horses and she said, ‘If you’re going to ride horses you’ve got to take some lessons so you don’t fall on your head and crack your skull.’”
“I took some lessons when I was 5 and 6 years old and really loved it,” says Sadler. “After coming back to Pasadena after the summer in Palos Verdes, I started going to Flintridge Riding Club in La Cañada taking lessons there. That was my introduction to horses.”
His equestrian upbringing traversed the 210 Freeway, like his education which began at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Cañada before continuing at Blair High School in Pasadena.
“All through high school I was in equestrian riding, in horse shows and competing. ¬ at was the start of my horse career,” Sadler says. His weekends were sacrosanct and spent at the stables.
“You wouldn’t just ride for an hour or however long your lesson was. You ended up staying all day and hanging out,” says Sadler who developed into a fine show jumper rider while at Blair High School and made it to the screening trials for the Olympic equestrian team.
Over the years of riding at Flintridge Riding Club, Sadler carpooled with the likes of Susie Hutchinson, now a Hall of Fame show jumper rider, and Anne Kursinski, a five-time Olympian show jumper rider who medaled in the Seoul (1988) and Atlanta (1996) Games.
During these formidable years of riding, Sadler’s love for horses continued to balloon. He knew he wanted to make a career involved with horses but didn’t know what avenue to take. Fittingly, that all changed once Sadler was introduced to horse racing at Santa Anita Park.
“My parents owned one-thirtieth ($1,000 stake) of a racehorse called Impossible Stables Incorporated. It was set up as an LLC with a bunch of people from Pasadena and San Marino,” says Sadler.
Organized by Pasadena resident Mike Morphy, Impossible Stables was Sadler’s ticket into the world of thoroughbred racing and his chance to learn from racehorse trainer, Tom Pratt. “I spent summers working with the horses in Tom’s barn and loved it,” says Sadler, who found himself working entry-level jobs as a groom and hot walker.
The invaluable experience of working with Pratt convinced Sadler what path he should take. With an immense love for horses and the self-confidence that came from being a seasoned rider, Sadler left the University of Oregon after just a year studying liberal arts in order to become a racehorse trainer.
At 22 years old, Sadler developed his chops as a trainer after having worked under the guidance of Dr. Jack Robbins as his veterinarian assistant and David Ho man as his assistant trainer. Decades later, those early experiences laid a solid foundation for Sadler’s holistic understanding of thoroughbreds and their pedigree – crucial insights behind his process for buying horses for his clients.
“What you’re looking for is an athlete in a horse that is unraced. You want to buy an athlete,” Sadler emphasizes.
¬There’s an art to buying young horses says Sadler who buys yearlings (1-year-olds) and two-year-old horses in the U.S. through private purchase and from other countries.
“You examine their pedigree and breeding,” Sadler continues, “We also do a vigorous veterinarian exam of the horse asking ourselves, ‘Do we think this horse is sound?’ and ‘Will the horse have any problems?’’”
Money is not the ¬first priority in the equation when it comes to the approach Sadler takes at the outset with his clients and those potentially interested in working with him.
“This is not a business. It’s a sport,” says Sadler. “You want to have fun.”
With four decades as a horse trainer under his belt, Sadler is endeared by his team who acknowledge his friendship and professionalism. “I respect him as a horseman,” comments Juan Leyva, who two years ago left a distinguished and promising horse racing career, uprooting himself and his family from their Florida residence to join Sadler as his assistant trainer at Santa Anita.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Leyva, who has been riding horses since he was 12-years-old. “He’s the out¬ t I wanted to join, hands down,” Leyva con¬fidently adds.
Sadler runs a tight ship, employing a staff of 30 split between groomers, exercise riders and hot walkers at his Santa Anita barn which houses 40 horses. He has a second barn at Los Alamitos with roughly 30 horses and a smaller contingent of staff.
“I’ve got a barn full of employees many of whom have been with me for 20-plus years,” Sadler says. “I’m proud of the close bond I’ve built with my team.”
As he reflects on those working behind the scenes who aren’t being written about but who have helped propel his standing as one of the best trainers in the sport—let alone the West Coast—Sadler is emphatic when saying, “I cannot talk enough about my team and those that have worked for me throughout my career.”
What equally captivates Sadler—not to mention motivates him to get him out of bed each day at 3 a.m.—is the process of developing a racehorse into a champion or at the very least, the best athlete they can be.
“I really enjoy training the horses,” Sadler says, “It’s great fun for me to have a young horse come into the barn like a lump of clay. You develop them and watch them grow and mature. Watch them get athletic and muscular. And then you see how far they can go on the race scene. How good they can get,” he concludes.
Being a racehorse trainer, Sadler says, “isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle.”
On the afternoon of Saturday, November 3, 2018, the ¬final race day of the Breeders’ Cup, what’s billed as the “de¬fining event of the international racing season,” the Classic, took place under parted clouds and a pale blue sky. The 1.25 mile-long race with a $6 million purse would be witnessed by more than 70,000 fancifully dressed spectators in attendance.
Heading into this race, Sadler’s previous entrants had come up short in their respective races. His Breeders’ Cup record stood at a dismaying 0-43. e winner’s circle appeared to be slipping away.
That all changed when jockey Joel Rosario mounted Accelerate, a ¬five year-old chestnut colt trained by Sadler whose 2018 season has been marked by wins in California’s top three Grade I competitions—the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic.
Accelerate, a 5-2 favorite in a ¬field of 14, came out of the gate on pace and methodically worked his way through the pack, coming in-line with four other horses as he reached the far turn. That’s when Rosario let the chestnut open up, riding him hard, as they led down the stretch to claim by one length, the 35th Breeders’ Cup Classic, and ¬finally bring Sadler a win he’d long sought.