01/29/2015 12:49PM

Hovdey: Thinner Sadler thick with contenders


John Sadler, finding himself in his mid-50s, decided a while back to start taking care of himself like one of the racehorses in his large public stable, which meant a diligent exercise routine and healthy food.

“It was a quality-of-life choice,” Sadler said. “I love what I do, and I want to be able to enjoy it for a long time.”

The horses didn’t notice, but the results were dramatic. Sadler wrapped up 2014 with a new waistline, along with the third-best purse total of any stable based in California, behind only the Baffert and Hollendorfer juggernauts. And even though Sadler has had a slow start to the current season, everyone knows that won’t last. Saturday could be a breakthrough afternoon when he brings over three runners who could end up making 2015 worth remembering.

First comes Yiannis, a 3-year-old son of Midshipman who is making his debut in the third race after popping clocks on a weekly basis for the past month and a half. Yiannis is owned by Kostas Hronis, who paid $560,000 for the colt as an Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. 2-year-old, which means the pressure is on his trainer, and not just because of the price tag. “Yiannis” is a variation of “John” in Greek.

“Sometimes that’s not a good sign,” Sadler said. “But never mind. He’s been training really well. At the sale, he was the kind of horse a lot of people were looking at, which means he wouldn’t come cheap.”

Hronis can spend money like that because of his family’s successful agricultural empire, specializing in grapes and citrus. He also owns Talco, who will be taking on a salty group of older turf horses – including Kaigun and Za Approval from the Mark Casse barn – in the $200,000 Arcadia at a mile.

Talco is a French son of the British stallion Pivotal who has yet to run a bad race in four American starts. It’s just that no one outside the barn has noticed.

He was third in the Del Mar Derby when practically right off the boat, then fifth, beaten less than two lengths, in the Twilight Derby at Santa Anita on a Breeders’ Cup undercard. Back at Del Mar in November, Talco was third to U.S. Horse of the Year California Chrome and likely Canadian Horse of the Year Lexie Lou in the Hollywood Derby. After that, he returned to Santa Anita on opening day to claw his way from the back of the field for fifth money in the Mathis Bros. Furniture Stakes, only 1 1/2 lengths off the winner, Alert Bay.

That seems like a lot of hard work for not much glory. Sadler was asked what Talco needs to finally break through.

“Except for the Del Mar race against two very good horses, he has had one unlucky trip after another,” Sadler said. “He trains so well in the morning, I just know he’s going to knock one of these off pretty quick.”

Talco comes running from the clouds, which can be a challenge on the short turf straights of Del Mar and Santa Anita. The temptation is always to shuffle the deck to change a run of tough luck, but Sadler and Hronis are sticking with the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice Drayden Van Dyke, who has ridden Talco twice and will be looking for his first stakes win as a journeyman.

“I’m convinced Drayden can make it,” Sadler said. “I used him early and had him on quite a few winners last year.”

The grand prize of the afternoon is the $300,000 Las Virgenes Stakes, which has been won in the last decade by champions Blind Luck, Rags to Riches, and Beholder. Sadler will send out Suva Harbor, by Rockport Harbor and out of the Thunder Gulch mare Queen Dido, who will be making her stakes debut.

“She’s a little bitty filly, but she’s really gutsy,” Sadler said.

Suva Harbor began her career for her breeder, William Gould, his partner, Dick Colvin, and their trainer, David Hofmans. After two promising second-place finishes, the filly was purchased by Gary Barber and his brother, Cecil Barber, along with their partner, Adam Wachtel, then turned over to Sadler, for whom she has won both her starts. Veteran Martin Pedroza has been her only jock.

“The transition’s always easier when you buy a horse off a guy you know and trust,” Sadler said. “I know whatever Dave tells me is going to be spot on, and we don’t train that much differently. As far as that goes, she was only two barns away.”

Among Suva Harbor’s opponents in the Las Virgenes are four scheduled to run for Jerry Hollendorfer, who already has won five stakes at the young meet. In the days before Hollendorfer set up shop in Southern California, he would send his runners to Sadler’s barn for temporary care, while Sadler’s horses would enjoy Hollendorfer’s accommodations whenever they shipped north.

“We’re all getting surrounded by Jerry lately,” Sadler said. “I always predicted that when he started to focus on Southern California, he’d go right to the top because nobody works harder. He’s going to be very strong for as long as he wants to do it and he doesn’t wear himself out.”