Trainer John Sadler is about as Southern California as you can get. He was born here, reared here, raced here, won training titles here. He's found a lot of success here.
But, he's missing one thing on his Southland resume. He's never won Santa Anita's signature race for older horses, the Santa Anita Handicap.
On what promises to be a spectacular but wet Saturday racing card, with five stakes races including three Grade 1s, Sadler is going to send out the 5-2 morning-line favorite in the race known simply as the Big 'Cap.
His entrant, Accelerate, also needs to pump up his resume with his first Grade 1 win, something that becomes important if you want to earn some status as a stallion.
The Big 'Cap isn't as big as it used to be, having the purse dropped from a high of $1 million to $600,000, the victim of being sandwiched between two mega-million races — the Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup.
The race once won by Seabiscuit, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid is now the home for a lot of really good older horses, but not the A-plus listers that would come from everywhere to run in this race. This year, there are only two horses that have won a Grade 1, and only one that has shipped from out of town.
"It would mean a lot to me to win, because I'm a Southern California native," Sadler said. "I've won a lot of big races but never this one. It still feels like a big race to me."
Accelerate is every bit the Southern Californian as his trainer, having never raced outside the area in 16 starts. He's won five of them and been on the board all but two times. His worst finish was ninth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar in November.
After that race it was discovered he had a quarter-crack.
"He had a physical thing bothering him that day," Sadler said. "Now he's back to being good."
The fiberglass patch that was applied to his hoof worked quickly and he came back with a strong second to Giant Expectations in the San Antonio Stakes on Santa Anita's opening day. Then, about a month ago, he won the San Pasqual by a convincing 1¾ lengths.
"His first race back got us excited again," said Kosta Hronis, who along with his brother Pete owns Accelerate. . "Then in the next race, the way he was able to handle that trip, got us feeling really, really good again."
In the 1 1/8-mile San Pasqual, Accelerate had to negotiate traffic on the backstretch, making his win that much more impressive.
But, the problem on Saturday is the Santa Anita Handicap is a 1¼-mile race.
"I'm not sure that's his best distance," Sadler said. "But he's doing so well, I thought we'd give it a try again."
The "again" refers to the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, the only time he's run that far. He finished a more than respectable third behind Collected and Arrogate. He actually beat Arrogate when he won the 1 1/16-mile San Diego Handicap.
"We're hoping to get him back to how he ran in the San Diego," Hronis said.
Accelerate was purchased as a yearling for $380,000 and has gone on to win more than $900,000.
"When you buy at a yearling sale, you have to keep your expectations pretty low and hope things turn out," Hronis said. "For every Accelerate story you have two or three that don't turn out. That's why you have to enjoy the ride when you have them and not retire them too soon."
The Big 'Cap might be headed for some changes. There is talk of moving it to another part of the racing calendar in order to get out of the way of the bigger-purse races. But on Saturday, one of Santa Anita's biggest legacy races will be run in the featured position of the 10th of 11 races.
The race everyone wants to see will be the Grade 2 $400,000 San Felipe Stakes, a Kentucky Derby points race. The No. 1 and 2 horses in most Derby polls will be meeting for the first time over 1 1/16 miles. This will be Bolt D'Oro's first start of the year for trainer and owner Mick Ruis, while Bob Baffert, loaded with talented 3-year-olds, sends out undefeated McKinzie.
Eclipse Award winner for the best turf male, World Approval, will be the big attraction in the Grade 1 $400,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile. He's won four in a row and six of the last seven, including the Breeders' Cup Mile on the turf.
The other Grade 1 will be the 7-furlong $400,000 Triple Bend Stakes. City Of Light, a $710,000 purchase and winner of the Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26, is the likely favorite.