If John Sadler doesn't have a good day Saturday, it won't be for a lack of trying.
Sadler and his primary patron, Hronis Racing, are taking swings in three Grade 1 events on the Santa Anita Park program with varying degrees of promise, ranging from wishful thinking to historically portentous, at least in terms of what could happen next.
Hard Aces, a 6-year-old son of Hard Spun, won the Cougar II Handicap at Del Mar as if he might be in for a piece of the subsequent Pacific Classic -- or at least whatever was left after California Chrome and Beholder got through with it. He was 38-1 on the tote board, so expectations were pitched accordingly, and things were going along well enough for the first five of the 10 furlongs, with Hard Aces keeping both favorites in his sights.
Then came a rapid retreat, as the Sadler runner wandered under the wire at a mild gallop, far behind California Chrome. The only horse he beat, Win the Space, had been pulled up halfway down the stretch.
This is hardly the way you want your horse to come into a race like the $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes, which is headed again by California Chrome.
"He kind of stumbled at one point and got a nasty cut on his leg," Sadler said. "That's why the jockey jumped off him right after the finish. We put a couple stitches in it, and he's been fine ever since. He's a tough, old horse."
No kidding. Hard Aces has run 34 times, won seven races, and is 10 bucks shy of becoming a millionaire. Seven of his 15 starts since joining Sadler and the Hronis stable have come in Grade 1 events, including a victory in the 2015 Gold Cup at Santa Anita and a second in the 2016 Santa Anita Handicap.
"What I'm trying to do is get him to the Marathon," Sadler said, referring to the $200,000 Marathon Stakes on the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup undercard. "So, I'm using a Grade 1 race at a mile and one-eighth to prep him for a Grade 2 at a mile and three-quarters, which I guess is a little unusual."
Half an hour after the Awesome Again, Sadler and the Hronis brothers -- Kosta and Pete -- will be in the mix for the $300,000 Rodeo Drive Stakes at 1-1/4 miles on firm turf. With 14 entered, no one scared anyone away.
"We've entered two, but I might scratch Nancy From Nairobi and maybe find someplace to run her back East," Sadler said.
Elektrum is the barn's other shooter, fresh off a close third in the John C. Mabee Stakes at Del Mar. She was second in the 2015 Rodeo Drive.
"She's finally getting the distance she likes," Sadler said. "When Santa Anita eliminated the mile-and-a-quarter Santa Barbara, that left only shorter races, and she's a mare who can handle the distance."
Elektrum comes by it honestly. Her sire, High Chaparral, was a two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf -- including his dead heat with Johar at Santa Anita in 2003 -- and her maternal grandsire is Inchinoor, the sire of San Juan Capistrano winner On the Acorn.
Sadler will take what he can get in the Awesome Again and the Rodeo Drive. It's the $300,000 Zenyatta he can taste, and he has the champion Stellar Wind wound up and ready to fire again against Beholder.
When last seen in the afternoon, Stellar Wind was beating Beholder on the square in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. The shock was real. At 1-10 odds, Beholder seemed like a mortal lock. Mortal, yes. Lock, no. Stellar Wind laid on her older rival from the start and dug in hard at the end to win by half a length.
"She was tired after that, but she had a right to be," Sadler said not long after the race.
Like every other trainer with a decent mare based out West, Sadler has been living in Beholder's world for years.
"You can't let Beholder just cruise around and save energy," Sadler said. "I know that won't work, so I would imagine this race will look fairly similar to the one at Del Mar."
There is a lot riding on the Zenyatta. Stellar Wind will try to prove the Hirsch was no fluke, while Beholder needs to shake loose from the only two-race losing streak of her 24-race career, after the Hirsch and her second to California Chrome in the Pacific Classic. The Zenyatta figures to set the stage for the Breeders' Cup Distaff five weeks later and a final championship showdown.
Sadler gave Stellar Wind an extra week of recovery after the Hirsch, then went back to training with a steady beat of weekly works, most recently three-quarters in 1:12 and change.
"They might have underestimated us a little bit last time," Sadler said. "Do you think we can get them to do that again? Probably not. But we know that both mares like Santa Anita a lot."
This is true. The 6-year-old Beholder has run 14 times at Santa Anita and won 13, losing only the 2013 Santa Ynez Stakes when second to Renee's Titan. The 4-year-old Stellar Wind has won three of four Santa Anita starts, losing only the Vanity last June, to Beholder.
"It's another heavyweight bout," Sadler said. "I'm excited."