Trainer John Sadler woke up Saturday morning to learn that his top older horse, Gift Box, had minor swelling in his left front ankle and had to be scratched from the Santa Anita Handicap.
It seemed as if his chances of becoming the first trainer to win the race, known as the Big ‘Cap, three years in a row were over. But he did have a longshot named Combatant in the race.
It didn’t seem evident in the morning, but Sadler’s backup plan was a winner.
Combatant, who had never run 1 1/4 miles, came four wide into the stretch, took the lead, and held on to win what was once Santa Anita’s signature race by a neck.
Combatant paid $21.20, $10.20 and $4.00. Multiplier used a ground-saving rail trip to finish second, followed by Midcourt, Brown Storm, Endorsed, Hofburg and Two Thirty Five.
“Obviously we wanted to run Gift Box,” Sadler said, adding of Combatant, “we were considering somewhere else, but I put him in as an insurance policy. He trained really well and it looked like he had no distance limitations to me, so I thought it would be a good chance to try him.”
In addition to Sadler’s three consecutive wins, done with three horses, it was also the third in a row for owners Kosta and Pete Hronis. Accelerate won it two years ago and Gift Box won last year.
The Santa Anita Handicap is a Grade 1 race worth $600,000. It was once a huge race nationally, but the introduction of much higher paying winter races in the Middle East have dulled this race in recent years.
“As a little kid coming to the racetrack, we always came to the Santa Anita Handicap,” Kosta Hronis said. “To be in the race is an honor and to win it three times in a row, that’s just a tribute to John Sadler and his team.”
Joel Rosario, who was originally supposed to ride Gift Box, was moved to Combatant, leaving Umberto Rispoli without a mount.
Sadler agreed that Rispoli would be paid whatever money Rosario would win on Combatant, a move called a double-jock mount.
“[Kosta Hronis] doesn’t know it yet,” Sadler said in the winner’s circle after the race. “Could you let me tell him?”
The jockey’s cut of first place would be around $36,000.
The Big ‘Cap wasn’t Sadler’s only stakes win Saturday. He had the winner in the Grade 2 $200,000 San Carlos Stakes for older horses going seven furlongs. Flagstaff, ridden by Victor Espinoza, sat right off the lead set by stablemate St. Joe Bay and swept four wide in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Roadster, who ran in last year’s Kentucky Derby, was second and McKale was third. Flagstaff, owned by Hronis Racing and Lane’s End Racing, paid $4.00, $2.40 and $2.20.
“He waits a little bit when he gets in front, so Victor was trying to sit behind as long as he could,” Sadler said. “Victor told me he got to the front a little quick but he was loaded [Saturday]. He had plenty of horse. He’s really strong.”
In the Grade 1 $400,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile for turf horses, River Boyne edged in front in a three-horse finish to beat Got Stormy and Next Shares. He paid $12.00, $5.20 and $3.40 for trainer Jeff Mullins and jockey Abel Cedillo.