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HOLLYWOOD PARK : Sadler Is Man With Speed to Spare

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Meet John Sadler, a young man with horses in a hurry.

At 34, he has established himself as a training whiz with thoroughbred whirlwinds. One racing reporter has called him, “King of the Sprinters.” Since the statistics backed up such high praise, Sadler gladly accepted the title.

Since 1988, Sadler’s stable of high-class sprinters has won 10 Southern California stakes, set two track records and established several stakes records. And all this has been accomplished with something less than the blue-blooded, Kentucky-bred bullets typified by Dayjur, the European speed demon who came within a vaulted shadow of winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in October.

Sadler’s front line--all of them gelded and wearing chestnut red--consists of Valiant Pete, a homegrown Cal-bred; Olympic Prospect, a former claimer; and Frost Free, a $50,000 yearling who did not make it to the races until he was 4.

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Like a bridge master mulling over a grand slam hand, Sadler will play Cal Cup Sprint winner Valiant Pete this Saturday in the Hollywood Turf Express at Hollywood Park. But just in case it rains enough to force the race onto the main track, Sadler has recent Underwood Handicap winner Frost Free ready to roll as well.

In the meantime, Sadler is preparing Olympic Prospect for a third comeback in the Palos Verdes Handicap during the first week of the Santa Anita season. The son of Northern Jove will turn 7 next year, but with the exception of Phone Trick and Chinook Pass, no California-based sprinter of the last decade has been more brilliant than Olympic Prospect.

Certainly, no top sprinter has spent more time in rehabilitation.

“He’s his own worst enemy,” Sadler said earlier this week as he reviewed Olympic Prospect’s career. “He’s almost too fast for his own good. I’m reasonably certain he can be as good as he ever was. He’s never been abused, never had a joint injected. But how long he lasts is up to him.”

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While Olympic Prospect is a hard-nosed old pro with a nasty streak, Valiant Pete is a big puppy.

“He’s a barn pet,” Sadler said. “They call him Baby Huey. He’s a big guy but very sweet. That’s why he was gelded as a yearling--he was so massive that it looked like there would be no way he could stand training.”

The last time Valiant Pete ran six furlongs on the Hollywood turf course, he suffered a minor shin fracture. That was on July 6, 1989. He was sent to the farm of owners Pete Valenti and John Coelho to recuperate, then developed a severe colic condition. Surgery was required to save his life.

Valiant Pete won four of seven starts before his injury, and since his return last June has won twice and been second three times in five tries. Besides the Cal Cup Sprint, his most recent race on Nov. 3, Valiant Pete won the Mt. Harvard Handicap at the Los Alamitos thoroughbred meeting in August. Blink and you missed it.

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The race was at 4 1/2 furlongs, a 990-yard dash that took Valiant Pete only 49 1/5 seconds to run. The world record for the odd distance had been 50 2/5, a mark held by nine horses at six tracks.

“When I heard about that race, I just drooled,” Sadler said. “It was perfect for him. Afterward, somebody said that I could have been a great quarter horse trainer if I’d gone that route.”

The Pasadena native seemed destined for the thoroughbreds, however. He rode his family’s show horses as a teen-ager, then dabbled at college before diving head-first into race track life. Sadler groomed horses for trainer Tom Pratt, spent 1 1/2 years with Dr. Jack Robbins as a veterinarian’s aide, then worked as an assistant with trainer Dave Hofmans before taking out his own license and heading north to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sadler admitted that he was not an overnight success.

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“I remember having to borrow money from my father in ’82 to pay the feed man,” Sadler recalled.

By the mid-1980s, Sadler was on his way. In 1986, he trained Melair, the exciting white filly who upset Preakness winner Snow Chief at Hollywood Park. He took Olympic Prospect to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1988 and ’89. And this year, his stable will hit an all-time high of nearly $2 million in earnings.

“Am I impatient about getting better horses? Yes and no,” Sadler replied. “Like a lot of trainers out here, my stock is gradually improving. But I’m not much of a heavy self-promoter. I figure if I keep doing well, the good ones will come.”

Sadler is ambivalent about his “sprint king” reputation.

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“It’s nice to be known for doing something well, but I don’t consider myself typecast,” he said. “Look at what’s been said about some others: Charlie Whittingham can train only European turf types--so he wins two Kentucky Derbies. Wayne Lukas can’t train for grass--so he’s got a turf champion. I think if you can train, you can train.”


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