Sadler Chief Among California Trainers Invading Oaklawn in ‘21

Friday, January 22, 2021

Several Southern California-based trainers have returned to Oaklawn in 2021. One is the nationally prominent John Sadler, who is scheduled to send out his first two starters of the meeting Saturday, including millionaire Grade 1 winner Combatant in the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes for older horses.

Sadler, in his debut as an Oaklawn regular last year, won 15 races to finish fifth in the standings. His major client, Hronis Racing (Kosta Hronis), was active at the claim box and won 11 races to finish second in the owner’s standings. Sadler returns with approximately 20 horses, the bulk for Hronis and Jerry Caroom of Hot Springs.

Sadler’s strong showing in 2020 lifted his career Oaklawn victory total to 18. His first three victories were in stakes company – Line of David in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) in 2010, champion Stellar Wind in the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) in 2017 and Cistron in the $150,000 Northern Spur in 2017. Sadler also finished second in the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) in 2018 with Accelerate, who would be named the country’s champion older dirt male that year.

“We had a good meet last year,” Sadler said. “I think it starts at the top. You have a very good governor there (Asa Hutchinson) and you’ve got ownership that’s really keen on racing. I’ve always had a good time there, whether we won the Arkansas Derby with Line of David or won the Apple Blossom with Stellar Wind. We’ve always had fun over there and run well. You want to go back to where you’ve had good experiences and I’ve always had good experiences in Hot Springs.”

Sadler’s 2021 Oaklawn string is headed by the Hronis Racing-owned Combatant and Grade 2 winner Flagstaff, who finished a fast-closing second in the $350,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) for older horses last April in Hot Springs. Sadler said Flagstaff, also campaigned by Hronis Racing, is scheduled to work Saturday morning and is being pointed for the $150,000 King Cotton Stakes Feb. 6. The King Cotton is the first local prep for the Count Fleet, a $500,000 Grade 3 race April 10. Also on the grounds for Sadler is Exulting, who won the inaugural $250,000 Oaklawn Mile for older horses in 2019 when with trainer Mike Maker.

“I always kind of send a diverse stable of horses,” Sadler said. “We’ve got, actually, a couple of Arkansas-breds this year that everybody gets a chuckle out of for local owners up there. I have a mix of allowance and claiming horses. We have the ability to swap horses in or out, with some stuff going from here to there or vice versa kind of thing.”

Sadler said assistants Juan Leyva and Alex Bisono are again overseeing his Oaklawn division, adding they will split time between Arkansas and Southern California. Sadler said COVID-19, specifically a vaccine to combat the virus, will dictate whether he travels to Arkansas.

“Obviously, one step at a time,” Sadler said. “Last year, I didn’t get that much time there because of COVID and what was going on. Then, you had to quarantine coming back. It gets tricky. Hopefully, I’ll get to spend more time there, although they told me the other day that hotel doesn’t open until March. I was picking out a room by the picture.”

Sadler, jokingly, was referring to Oaklawn’s new seven-story, 200-room hotel overlooking the first turn. The hope, Oaklawn President Louis Cella said, is to open the facility by the end of March.

According to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, Sadler has more than 2,500 victories and $130 million in purse earnings in his career. His biggest career victory came with Accelerate in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) in 2018 at Churchill Downs.

Other Southern California-based trainers who returned to Oaklawn in 2021 are Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Phil D’Amato and Peter Miller.

Just a Love Machine

Among the best claims of the 2020 Oaklawn meeting occurred last April when owner/trainer Karl Broberg took Hunka Burning Love for $32,000 out of a seventh-place finish in a 1 1/8-mile event for older horses. Broberg didn’t have to shake for the gelding, either.

All Hunka Burning Love has done in 10 starts for Broberg is win eight races, including four stakes, by a combined margin of more than 43 lengths and bankroll $259,199. Broberg had previously claimed Hunka Burning Love for $50,000 in September 2019 at Churchill Downs, but lost him for $62,500 less than a month later when, in his only start for the trainer, the gelding beat just one horse in an allowance/optional claiming sprint at Keeneland.

Clearly, Broberg hit a home run after taking his second swing at Hunka Burning Love.

“I wish I could say I had some grand master plan,” Broberg said. “I just knew from the previous claim that the horse was sound and that he had speed and it was at the end of Oaklawn. I’m like, ‘I know he’s going to fit somewhere.’ He still had his non-winner of two other than (allowance) condition at the time, so I didn’t have any grand plan other than thinking there were going to be much softer spots ahead for him.”

Well-spotted regionally, Hunka Burning Love dominated in two starts at Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma before claiming the $75,000 Lone Star Mile in June at Lone Star Park in Texas, $75,000 Governor’s Cup Stakes in August at Remington Park in Oklahoma, $100,000 Delta Mile Stakes Nov. 28 at Delta Downs in Louisiana and the $60,000 Jeffrey A. Hawk Memorial Stakes Dec. 18 at Remington Park in his last start.

“If you want to count running his legs off spotting him in the right places, we didn’t miss any dances,” Broberg said.

Hunka Burning Love, North America’s co-winningest horse in 2020, is scheduled to begin his 2021 campaign in Saturday’s $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes at Oaklawn.

Hunka Burning Love began his racing career for the high-profile connections of trainer Mike Maker and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, competing against top runners like McCraken, Warrior’s Club, Cool Arrow, Uncontested, Chief Know It All and Guest Suite before falling down the class ladder. Guest Suite won the first division of the 2020 Fifth Season.

“He’s been a solid horse throughout his career,” Broberg said. “He’s got heart. He’s just professional. The thing that’s funny about him is after every race, he doesn’t pull up. He wants to run right back around again, which is funny for the jocks on him for the first time.”

Broberg, the country’s perennial leader in victories, said the Fifth Season will be Hunka Burning Love’s biggest challenge since he re-claimed the 7-year-old son of super sire Into Mischief.

The 1-mile Fifth Season also attracted millionaire Grade 1 winner Combatant, Grade 3 winner Night Ops, second-division 2020 Fifth Season winner Pioneer Spirit and Silver State, a sharp winner of his last two starts. Hunka Burning Love, 6-1 on the morning line, is winless in four Oaklawn starts.

“If this fails, then I’m going to give him a break for a few months and we’ll come back elsewhere,” Broberg said.

Hunka Burning Love has a 16-4-6 mark from 46 lifetime starts and earnings of $517,329.

Finish Lines

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen entered the 2021 Oaklawn meeting that began Friday with 696 career victories in Hot Springs, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Asmussen is seeking his record-tying 11th Oaklawn training title. … Nominations to the $150,000 King Cotton Stakes Feb. 6 for older sprinters closed Thursday. … Post positions for the $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 mile and the $150,000 American Beauty Stakes for older female sprinters are to be drawn Saturday. Both races are Jan. 30. … Grade 2 winner Green Light Go worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.40 over a fast track Tuesday morning for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and breeder/owner Frank Stronach. … Three races Saturday at Oaklawn are part of this year’s first Cross Country Pick 5. They are the fifth (probable post time, 3:06 p.m., Central), seventh (4:13 p.m.) and eighth (4:47 p.m.). The eighth race is the $150,000 Pippin Stakes for older fillies and mares. Live coverage will be available on America's Day at the Races (FOX Sports). According to the New York Racing Association, free Equibase past performances for the Cross Country Pick 5 are available for download at Cross Country Wagers | NYRA. The minimum bet for the multi-track, multi-race wager is 50 cents. Wagering on the Cross Country Pick 5 is also available on ADW platforms and at simulcast facilities across the country. Every week will feature a mandatory payout of the net pool. The Cross Country Pick 5 will continue each Saturday throughout the year.