All the signs pointed to another disappointing Breeders’ Cup for John Sadler. The talented trainer had already lost three times at Churchill Downs on Saturday, upping his winless total to 44 races in horse racing’s Super Bowl series of races.
And then came Accelerate in the $6-million Classic. Just like his last race, the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita, he balked going into the gate. But once the gate opened he positioned himself just off the pace, picked up the tempo entering the far turn and then moved even with Mendelssohn entering the stretch.
And from there he started to make his case to be horse of the year, winning by a length over hard-charging Gunnevera.
“I read somewhere where it said maybe he did all this in the wrong year,” said Kosta Hronis, who owns the horse along with his brother Pete. “But maybe Justify won the Triple Crown in the wrong year. I don’t know.”
One thing is for sure, it was the right year for Sadler.
He started his Breeders’ Cup on Saturday when Selcourt gave up the lead and faded badly to finish 12th in the Filly & Mare Sprint. Then Catalina Cruiser, considered by many to be his best shot for a win, came up empty and finished sixth in the Dirt Mile. It was his first loss in five races after winning the San Diego Handicap and Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar this summer. City Of Light, who won the race for Santa Anita-based Michael McCarthy, is the only horse to have beaten Accelerate this year, in the Oaklawn Handicap.
Sadler looked like he would get his first win, but his Catapult couldn’t hold off Expert Eye in the deep stretch and lost the Mile turf race by half-a-length.
Was Sadler concerned these were signs?
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I think that way all the time. You know, we’re prepared for the worst and hope for the best. You never know.”
Despite sweeping four California Grade 1s — the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup, Pacific Classic and Awesome Again — Accelerate was not an overwhelming favorite, going off at $2.70 to the dollar. McKinzie, the Bob Baffert trainee who had just won the Pennsylvania Derby after a six-month layoff, was getting a lot of attention at $3.90. West Coast and Mind Your Biscuits were also less than 10-1.
But Accelerate proved he was the best and paid $7.40, $6 and $4.40. Gunnevera was second and Thunder Snow was third, followed by the Japanese horse Yoshida and Mendelssohn.
McKinzie raced up close for about a mile before he faded back and finished 12th. West Coast, also for Baffert, sat off the pace for a while before finishing seventh. Mind Your Biscuits was 11th.
“They looked good for about a mile,” Baffert said of his two horses. “They just tired and didn’t have it today. [McKinzie] is lightly raced and playing catch-up. I thought West Coast would run a little better than that.
“Accelerate is a good horse and he was the best horse.”
The win was the third of the two-day event for jockey Joel Rosario, having also won the Juvenile with Game Winner and the Juvenile Fillies with Jaywalk. He considered it the best weekend of his career.
“Yes, probably, yes,” he said. “You know, I have to say something, I’m really happy for John. When I was in California in the beginning, John gave me a lot of opportunity to be what I am today. I’m just very happy he got to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”
This is only the third time Rosario has ridden Accelerate, getting the mount when regular jockey Victor Espinoza was in a serious spill. He fractured his back and is hoping to return to riding by the beginning of the year.
“Victor did a great job with him this year and a shout-out to him,” Sadler said. “We send him our best.”
It’s going to be difficult to convince Eclipse Award voters to not give horse of the year to the 13the Triple Crown winner, Justify. But Hronis and Sadler say Accelerate made his case Saturday. And, no doubt, many in the crowd of 70,423 who witnessed his win agreed.
“This horse is special,” Kosta Hronis said. “He’s shown up every time. He’s danced every dance. He’s been solid. This is horse of the year. It’s a body of work and what he’s done in the last 12 months, I think he’s well deserved to get that honor. There’s no doubt.”
Accelerate will head to Lane’s End Farm in Lexington on Sunday to be shown as a stallion. From there it is back to California before deciding if the soon-to-be 6-year-old has one more race in him, the Pegasus Gold Cup at Gulfstream Park. The race is in January and comes before the start of the breeding season.
As the post-race news conference was breaking up, Pete Hronis, who shuns the spotlight and chose not to be on the dais with his brother, walked to the front of the room.
“I don’t usually like to talk to the media, but I have four words,” he said.