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BILL DWYRE

Trainer John Sadler's reputation grows with Big Cap favorite Twirling Candy

John Sadler, a Southern Californian whose mentors include Eddie Gregson and Charlie Whittingham, is succeeding in thoroughbred racing his way, after starting long ago in equestrian.

March 04, 2011|Bill Dwyre

The most remarkable thing about highly successful thoroughbred trainer John Sadler is that he is so unremarkable.

Sadler grew up near Santa Anita in Pasadena, fell in love with the animals he now spends all his time with, and never really wanted to do anything else. He doesn't have the recognition value of Bob Baffert's white hair and quick wit, or Doug O'Neill's oozing Irish charm, nor even Julio Canani's quirky broken English.

Sadler is just a guy doing a job.

At the moment, he is doing it more successfully than anybody else in Southern California. He has two straight training titles at the major Santa Anita winter meeting, is near the top again and has one of the top horses in the country going for him right now. That would be Twirling Candy, the clear class of the field in Saturday's traditional season highlight, the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap.

With that attention comes pressure.

"Any result other than a win will be a huge disappointment," Sadler says.

Even though he has yet to win a Triple Crown race, or a Breeders' Cup race, Sadler has gone from a trainer with a good regional reputation to somebody with a stable of 80 horses, a deep-pocket marquee owner in Jenny Craig and a rapidly increasing national stature. On a day that will also include the $250,000 Santa Anita Oaks and the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, like the Big Cap both Grade I races, Sadler will start nine horses.

He is quietly proud of the Frank Sinatra approach he has taken to his success. He has done it his way.

"I've always wanted to be my own brand," he says. "I have been in this for 28 years, and there were lots of years when things got tough, when I had to ask my parents for financial help.

"But I learned from some of the best, from Eddie Gregson, Charlie Whittingham. Theirs was a kinder, gentler era. One of the best things I learned was not to fly off the handle. Don't yell at a jockey because you're likely to find out the next day that there was something wrong with the horse."

Sadler calls that the "bite your tongue" approach.

"Charlie Whittingham used to say that you shouldn't knock a horse until he's been dead two years," Sadler says.

If the lessons came from the legendary Whittingham, and Sadler's first horse to train came from Gregson — who won the 1982 Kentucky Derby with Gato Del Sol — then the nudge toward a career in thoroughbred training came from, of all places, the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

Sadler was a good enough horse jumping rider as a teenager to make it to the U.S. Olympic equestrian trials. He thought he did well, but back then, Olympic horse-and-rider teams were chosen kind of like the way they pick the winner of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

"Now, they have measured competition," Sadler says. "Back then, a judge walked around at the end and kind of pointed. You're in. And you, and you.

Sadler wasn't in. The politics of the sport had left him out, so he found another sport with the same animals. According to his older brother, Tom, an attorney in Los Angeles, horses were destined to be part of John's life.

"Our parents took us to a picnic when we were kids and there were horses there," Tom Sadler says. "They let John and me ride. John could make his horse do anything he wanted it to. Mine ran off into the hills. I don't think I've been back on one since."

When John was young, his parents purchased, with 29 friends, a one-thirtieth interest in a $30,000 race horse. The syndicate was called, fittingly, Impossible Stables Inc. The best product from that joint venture was probably John Sadler, who got his first backstretch exposure to the sport and never left.

"I went to the University of Oregon for a couple of years," Sadler says, "but all I wanted to do was to come back to the track."

He went to Oregon because his father had. No other reason. And his premature departure — especially with big brother Tom at Stanford and becoming a lawyer — was not popular with all family members.

"My grandma, back in the Midwest, kept asking when I was going to get a real job," Sadler says.

Sadler's real job goes seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, and starts each day at 3:30 a.m., when he rises to get to the barns.

"I go to bed about 8, 8:30," he says.

Tom Sadler says: "If you have him over for dinner, it better be an early one, and it better be on time. His job is grueling. No weekends off. Very little outside social life. The key to success is the hard work, and John puts that in."

Big brother also sees how that hard work has paid off.

"It's kind of funny," Tom Sadler says. "People ask how come I'm a boring lawyer and my brother is a glamorous horse race trainer."

Ah, John Sadler being compared favorably to a big-time lawyer. Now that's remarkable.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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