03/05/2014 12:04PM

Kentucky Derby: Sadler has his best shot yet with Kristo, Kobe's Back, Candy Boy

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Candy Boy, the winner of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes last month at Santa Anita, is one of three Kentucky Derby hopefuls trained by John Sadler, along with Kristo and Kobe's Back.

ARCADIA, Calif. – John Sadler has been trudging through the backstretch at Santa Anita for more than three decades now, steadily rising to the elite among the trainers based in Southern California. He has developed a highly successful stable that competes across all levels, from stakes racing to claimers, turf to dirt, sprinters to routers.

Once typecast as a trainer of sprinters, owing to early success with the likes of Olympic Prospect, Frost Free, Track Gal, and the mercurial Melair, there is now mountains of evidence – a versatile filly like Switch, a long-distance turf horse like Vagabond Shoes – that Sadler’s training acumen knows no bounds.

Where Sadler has yet to break through, however, is on the national front. Sadler, 57, has won training titles at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park, and he had his best year yet in 2013, with purse earnings of $7,727,780 that placed him ninth among his brethren. But he has yet to win a Triple Crown race or a Breeders’ Cup race, though he has had two seconds and four thirds in Breeders’ Cup races.

The Triple Crown, specifically the Kentucky Derby, was never a focal point of his operation. He had a runner in the Derby for the first time in 1993 with Corby, who finished sixth. He didn’t return until 2010, when Sidney’s Candy finished 17th and Line of David 18th in a 20-horse field. He hasn’t been there since. Three runners total.

Yet if things fall just right over the next two months, Sadler could equal that total this year alone.

Sadler has three of the leading members of this year’s Derby crop. The long-fused Candy Boy, winner of last month’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, is awaiting the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. Kobe’s Back, who rallied powerfully to capture the San Vicente Stakes eight days after Candy Boy won the Lewis, is headed to Oaklawn Park for the Rebel Stakes on March 15.

This Saturday, it will be Kristo’s turn to see if he can remain on the Derby trail when he competes in the Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in a field that has both quality and depth, what with four members of the Derby Watch top 20 scheduled to compete.

The prominence of Sadler’s 3-year-olds coincides with his steady evolvement toward better-quality stock. Sadler always has had good horses. He’s just got more of them now, and though he still dabbles in claimers, that part of his operation has been truncated to where he focuses on upper-level claimers.

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Sadler trains approximately 90 horses, the main string at Santa Anita and the second string, formerly at Hollywood Park, now at San Luis Rey Downs.

“I like action,” Sadler said. “I like competing at different levels. But we’ve been shifting to better horses.”

Of the three Derby prospects, Kristo, by Distorted Humor, probably was the most highly regarded last summer. A $500,000 yearling purchase by owner Kosta Hronis, Kristo trained so spectacularly that he was the odds-on favorite for his debut last summer at Del Mar. He took three starts to defeat maidens, a victory that coincided with his first try around two turns, then was second last time out to Midnight Hawk in the Sham Stakes.

Candy Boy and Kobe’s Back are owned by the C R K Stable of Lee and Susan Searing, who, like Hronis, have been longtime clients of Sadler’s. Candy Boy is a homebred by the stallion Candy Ride out of the stakes-winning In Excess mare She’s an Eleven. Kobe’s Back, a son of Flatter, was purchased for $400,000 one year ago at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. sale of 2-year-olds in training.

“Kristo was a superlative yearling,” Sadler said. “And you look at a horse like Candy Boy, with his pedigree and being such a good-looking horse, who knows what he would have cost had we been trying to buy him, if he wasn’t a homebred? He probably would have been out of our range. Having clients willing to breed horses like that, or step up and spend money like they have, is a huge help to race at this level.”

Corby, Sadler’s first Derby starter, ran well from post 17 in a 19-horse field. He advanced to second at the quarter pole but flattened out late to finish about six lengths behind the victorious Sea Hero. In 2010, both Sidney’s Candy and Line of David tired badly on a sloppy track after being prominent for the first half of the race.

“It was a sea of slop,” Sadler said. “It’s funny, I don’t have a real strong memory of walking over with Corby, but last time, both sets of owners had lots of friends, kids, and grandkids with them, and it was a lot of fun.”

Although he has had limited Derby experience, Sadler is one of the more observant trainers on the grounds – he’s done well claiming first-time starters he espied in the morning – and, being a native of Southern California, for years has seen the ebbs and flows of pre-Derby campaigns here.

“You’re always evolving as a trainer,” Sadler said. “With the Derby, I’ve learned you let them take you there. You can’t force the process. You have to be patient. And you don’t want to go just to go. We started this year with the right types of horses. We don’t have the numbers like the big guys, but we knew these horses had that kind of talent.”