The scene was very familiar but the circumstances were very different.
Trainer John Sadler and owner Kosta Hronis were in full congratulatory mode after winning the Grade 1 $1 million Pacific Classic for the second straight year.
But last year, they were riding the vapor trail of Accelerate, who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. This year, it was left to Higher Power, literally not figuratively, to win in only his fourth race in the Sadler barn.
The race was one of the more evenly matched given the stretch of dominant horses that ran the race the previous five years: Accelerate, Arrogate, California Chrome, Beholder and Shared Belief. It created a situation where four of the 10 horses were shippers.
Part of the thinking to come to Del Mar and not race in last week’s Whitney Stakes at Saratoga was because that’s where McKinzie, Thunder Snow and Yoshida, considered the top of the older horse division, were running.
But the top three horses on Saturday at Del Mar — Higher Power, Draft Pick and Mongolian Groom — were all locally based.
“It developed pretty much the way we thought,” Sadler said. “We thought there would be some speed on the inside and the plan was to stalk. It came out the way we thought it would.”
Quip, based in Kentucky, went to the early lead but then gave way entering the far turn. That’s when jockey Flavien Prat started to move Higher Power and he had a 3½-length lead when he entered the stretch. The winning margin was 5¼ lengths.
Higher Power paid $21.20, $9.40 and $7.40. From fourth place, the remainder of the field was Tenfold, Campaign, War Story, the favorite Seeking the Soul, Pavel, Quip and For The Top.
“We were in good shape all the way around,” Prat said. “At the three-eighths pole, I asked, and he took up the bit and went from there. He was traveling well all the way around. I thought he would run a good race [Saturday]. He had been training so well, I thought he would have a good one in him.”
Higher Power had previously been racing for trainer Michael Stidham, but the 4-year-old colt became available.
“The horse is in the older horse sale at Keeneland in the spring and Mike Stidham calls me and recommended him to me,” Sadler said. “’John, this is a really nice horse. This client is moving some horses along and you might want to take a look at him,’”
And that’s what Sadler did through David Ingordo, a bloodstock agent who works with Sadler and other trainers.
“He loved him,” Sadler said. “There is room [in our barn] for a horse that can run two turns in the handicap division, so we bought him and everything has just worked right.”
His first race for Sadler was a fifth in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, followed by two turf races with a win in an allowance and a second in the Wickerr Stakes.
“He ran a sneaky good race in the Wickerr,” Sadler said. “He was flying at the wire.”
After two good works and change in jockey from Drayden Van Dyke to Prat, the decision was to try him at 1¼ miles on the dirt — the Pacific Classic.
“We won it last year, felt good about last year, so decided to try it again,” Sadler said.
It was sixth stakes win of the meet for Sadler and Prat.
It was also the first back-to-back wins in the Pacific Classic for the same trainer-owner combination.
“I have so much pressure Monday through Friday that this kind of stuff — I mean I love it, I breathe it, but it’s not pressure to me,” Hronis said. Hronis along with his brother Pete are the owners of Hronis Racing and also run the family fruit farm in central California.
“This is a thrill. I’m so fortunate to have a great trainer, a great staff, and I’m so proud of the groom Alex [Escobar].”
Escobar was also Accelerate’s groom during his Eclipse Award-winning season last year.
While no plans are final, Sadler used the Awesome Again at Santa Anita as a prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic for Accelerate. The race is Sept. 28 this year and the Classic will be Nov. 2, also at Santa Anita.
Hronis, who also won an Eclipse award for owners of the year, was asked how you top last year.
“You do it by winning it (the Classic) again.”