December 9, 2022

Sadler makes Santa Anita Handicap history with Combatant

Hronis Racing's Combatant and jockey Joel Rosario win the Santa Anita Handicap © BENOIT PHOTO

Winning the $600,000 Santa Anita H. (G1) must be getting a bit old hat for trainer John Sadler and Hronis Racing, who completed an extraordinary “Big ‘Cap” hat trick when Combatant battled to an upset victory in Saturday’s renewal of the historic 1 1/4-mile prize.

Following the lofty precedent set by stablemates Accelerate (2018) and Gift Box (2019), Combatant fought tooth and nail to claim victory against a half-dozen rivals. After racing in fourth place for most of the journey, Combatant swung into contention on the far outside and forged to a narrow lead at the eighth pole.

But even then the result was thoroughly uncertain. Four horses were strung across the track with just 220 yards remaining, and Combatant had to dig deep under jockey Joel Rosario to fend off a late charge from the ground-saving Multiplier. The outcome could have gone either way, but Combatant gamely held on to prevail by a neck in 2:02.32.

The 7-10 favorite Midcourt, who employed stalking tactics, weakened slightly in the final strides to settle for third, beaten less than a length. The pacesetting Brown Storm finished fourth, followed by Endorsed, Hofburg, and Two Thirty Five.

John Sadler and Hronis Racing had originally planned to be represented by defending champion Gift Box. But the morning-line favorite was forced to scratch with a minor ankle injury, leaving Combatant to salvage the day.

“Obviously we wanted to run Gift Box. This horse we were considering somewhere else, but I put him in as an insurance policy,” explained Sadler, who became the first trainer in history to win three consecutive editions of the Big ‘Cap. “He trained really well and it looked like he had no distance limitations to me, so I thought it was a good chance to try him. He’s got some pretty good races on his form. He won his last start at Churchill before he came out here. We put some blinkers on him, did some minor changes, and he has responded well.”

A veteran of the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1), Combatant had previously run 14 times against stakes company without reaching the winner’s circle. Formerly trained by Steve Asmussen, Combatant was purchased by Hronis Racing for $220,000 in November and has now run twice under Sadler’s care, prepping for the Santa Anita H. with a third-place effort in the San Pasqual (G2).

“This is not the easiest track to run, so it takes a while to get used to but this is home now (for Combatant),” explained Kosta Hronis of Hronis Racing, “and we figured if we were to give him a shot at a mile and a quarter this would be the place to do it.”

Earlier in the afternoon, River Boyne battled to a tenacious victory in the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1). A 5-year-old Irish-bred son of Dandy Man, River Boyne has always shown a special affinity for the turf course at Santa Anita, but he elevated his game to a new level on Saturday.

Entering off a victory in the Thunder Road (G3) over the same course and distance as the Kilroe Mile, River Boyne received a perfect ride from jockey Abel Cedillo. After saving ground in fourth place behind quick fractions of :23.15, :46.49, and 1:10.27, River Boyne stayed inside and set his sights on the pace-tracking favorite Got Stormy, who had forged to a 1 1/2-length advantage at the eighth pole.

Runner-up in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), Got Stormy appeared on her way to victory as the 11-10 betting choice, but River Boyne refused to concede and got up in the final strides to win by a neck. Trained by Jeff Mullins for Red Baron’s Barn and Rancho Temescal, River Boyne stopped the timer in 1:33.88 to record the seventh stakes triumph of his career. Six of those victories have come over the lawn at Santa Anita.

“A perfect trip. I told Abel to try and get the same trip as he did last time. This time he had to go inside instead of outside. Abel has done a great job keeping him in position, that is the way he likes to run and he’s got a really good kick down the lane,” said Mullins. “…He’ll go anywhere you want him to as long as he’s got enough energy left. Abel has done a great job of saving it until it counts so a lot of credit goes to Abel.”

Also on the Big Cap undercard, even-money favorite Flagstaff fired off a career-best effort in the 7-furlong San Carlos (G2), securing his first graded stakes triumph. A lightly-raced 6-year-old conditioned by Sadler, the son of Speightstown was always within striking range under Victor Espinoza before rallying to the front in the homestretch. Down the lane, he held off a late bid from Roadster to score by 1 1/4 lengths.

Racing for the partnership of Lane’s End Racing and Hronis Racing, Flagstaff stopped the clock in 1:22.64.

“He waits a little bit when he gets in front so Victor was trying to sit behind as long as he could,” noted Sadler. “Victor told me he got to the front a little quick, he was loaded today, plenty of horse, he’s really strong.”

The same can be said of Sadler’s entire stable—strong and loaded with high-class horses for every major racing day.