04/09/2015 2:05PM

Hovdey: Riding a hot streak into Hot Springs

Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography
Hard Aces easily won the Louisiana Handicap for Larry Jones and now returns to the Midwest for the Oaklawn Handicap under the care of West Coast trainer John Sadler.

With Shared Belief heading for the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic on April 18, the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap this Saturday suddenly looked like it was there for the taking. So, why not take a shot, especially if you’ve got the hottest owner-trainer-jockey combo in the left half of the country?

Fresh off a mind-blowing weekend at Santa Anita, John Sadler will be running Louisiana Handicap winner Hard Aces in the Oaklawn event for owners Pete and Kosta Hronis, with Victor Espinoza firmly attached. It’s a band you wouldn’t want to break up.

Four of Sadler’s five winners last weekend were Hronis horses, and Espinoza rode two of those, including Stellar Wind in a dazzling Santa Anita Oaks. Espinoza rode four winners last Saturday alone, three for Sadler and one for Peter Miller, and he could have a pretty good day in Hot Springs, Ark., as well. Espinoza also rides American Pharoah in the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

But first the Oaklawn Handicap, in which the 5-year-old Hard Aces is playing the part of the repatriate after slumming out West for a couple of months. Racing for Larry Jones, Hard Aces was a familiar face in the Midwest and even dallied in Delaware while running up a quarter-million dollars in prize money. He was sold to Hronis Racing after winning the Jan. 17 Louisiana Handicap by four lengths, then seven weeks later found himself chasing Shared Belief in the Santa Anita Handicap.

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Hard Aces did not catch America’s best racehorse, but he did finish a decent fourth, beaten about two lengths for second, and should be far more comfortable in the company of Race Day, Tapiture, and Golden Lad on Saturday. If nothing else, he’s got some serious stable mojo going for him.

Sadler’s four winners propelled him into third place behind the Jerry Hollendorfer and Bob Baffert juggernauts in stable earnings at Santa Anita, while the Hronis onslaught has found them ranked seventh among all U.S. owners in purse winnings this year.

“I’ve won four races a couple of times before, but usually it takes an 11-race card to get that done,” Sadler said. “Someone asked what I thought going in, and I said we could probably win three.

“What was really great about the day, though, was starting it off running the charity 5K at the track with about 6,500 other people, including my jockey,” Sadler said. “I did it in 30 minutes, without going to a walk, and I found out later that Victor did it in 18 minutes, the best of the jockeys who ran. After that, I was on a high all day.”

The Hronis-Sadler roll hardly qualifies as an overnight sensation. They first joined forces in 2010 with a master plan that has evolved into a vertically integrated stable that seeks to have horses for all manner of races, quality preferred. Last year, they hit the board in Breeders’ Cup races with Iotapa and Daddy D T. The year before, Vagabond Shoes gave them a thrill when a solid fifth to Magician in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. This year, their private purchase of Stellar Wind has led to easy wins in the Santa Ysabel and Santa Anita Oaks, as well as a trip to the Kentucky Oaks as one of the favorites for the May 1 fillies classic.

“It’s all about the horse with them,” Sadler said. “They want to do the right thing. So, if there are any mistakes, they’re coming from me, not from the top.”

Hard Aces, a son of Hard Spun, can hardly be called a California horse yet. But he’ll take what karma he can from the encouraging history of Californians in the Oaklawn Handicap. Since champions Turkoman and Snow Chief ventured to Arkansas in the mid-1980s to take the nine-furlong event, the list of winners launched from the West Coast includes Festin, Best Pal, The Wicked North, Atticus, Kudos, Buzzards Bay, and Tiago.

Sadler himself has enjoyed his share of Oaklawn Park success as well, topped by 2010 Arkansas Derby winner Line of David, whose first crop as a sire includes this year’s Sunland Derby winner and Kentucky Derby hopeful, Firing Line.

“We were a very good second at Oaklawn with Switch to Havre de Grace, and last year, we were second there with Magic Union to Close Hatches,” Sadler said. “They also treat you wonderfully there.”

Hard Aces could turn out to be the kind of solid, main-track older horse who runs out a surprising amount of money before anyone starts paying attention. Especially when avoiding Shared Belief.

“Everything Larry Jones told me about him was very true,” Sadler said. “He’s a very kind horse, easy to gallop. I think there’s always room in that division for a horse like this, especially when there is only one horse you have to duck. I thought there were two, but now it sounds like California Chrome has gone on an international tour.”

Sadler said that if all goes well, Hard Aces will return home for races like the Californian and the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, and beyond that, a new dirt track at Del Mar will beckon for the Pacific Classic. First, though, he’d like to try for another Saturday like last Saturday.