2020: The Sadler-Hronis Big 'Cap Triple
If you talk to any California-based trainer, they will tell you how much they want to win the Santa Anita Handicap. It is California's biggest Thoroughbred race, and not everybody gets to experience victory in the grand event.
Looking through the Big 'Cap's history, you'll find legendary conditioners like Tom Smith, William Molter, Charlie Whittingham, and Ron McAnally on the list of winners. However, for every legend you find, you'll also that see some of the finest trainers on the circuit never won the Big 'Cap. Take Tommy Doyle and Buster Millerick. Neither one hoisted the trophy in the Hundred Grander during their respective careers.
For decades, John Sadler was a part of the latter category. Though he was anything but retired, the longtime conditioner had won multiple meet titles throughout Southern California, captured many stakes, and guided terrific horses. But one race was missing from his resume: the Big 'Cap.
That finally changed in 2018. Following his win in the Grade II San Pasqual Stakes, Accelerate gave Sadler that elusive Big 'Cap victory after more than thirty years on the circuit.
Little did Sadler know that he would not have to wait long again before getting another Big 'Cap title. One year later in 2019, Accelerate had been retired and was not going for a repeat. But Sadler was. Now in his stable was Gift Box, who promptly won the Grade II San Antonio Stakes for his new trainer.
The San Antonio had long been a prep race for the Big 'Cap, and Gift Box continued that tradition. Back in action in April, Gift Box got up in time to overtake McKinzie and win the 2019 renewal. After a long drought, Sadler now owned back-to-back Big 'Caps. That also went for the owners of Accelerate and Gift Box, Kosta and Pete Hronis, and they were now in line to win three Big 'Caps, an unprecedented feat for trainers and a rarity for owners.
Much like with trainers, well known owners came up with Big 'Cap wins over the years, with Charles Howard, Calumet Farm, Fred Hooper, and Connie Ring among them. However, only Howard and the partnership of Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable LLC, and Schiappa had won the race three times. The latter group achieved all of theirs with Game On Dude, the lone horse to win three Big 'Caps. Howard did so with Kayak II, Seabiscuit, and Noor. Going into 2020, Hronis Racing stood with a chance to join them upon entering one of their horses in the Hundred Grander's 83rd running.
In fact, they had two chances: Gift Box captured the San Antonio Handicap on opening day of the 2019-2020 meet, setting him up for a Big 'Cap title defense. Unfortunately, he was withdrawn on the morning of the race due to a minor issue, but Sadler and Hronis Racing also had Combatant, one of the newest members of their team.
Combatant was not favored, going off at 9-1 after coming off a third in the Grade II San Pasqual Stakes just over a month earlier. He stayed within striking distance of the front before unleashing a big move turning for home. The ridgling briefly raced very wide in the stretch, but he was game. He continued grinding to the wire, getting past Midcourt and Multiplier to win the Big 'Cap by a half-length in an exciting conclusion to the race.
The Big 'Cap, at its 1 1/4 mile distance, has long been a showcase for horses coming through to get the win after a tough battle. Not only did Combatant do that, he also played a pivotal role in history being made at Santa Anita on March 7, 2020. The moment he reached the wire, Combatant gave John Sadler the unprecedented achievement of winning three consecutive Big 'Caps as a trainer. Several had won the race in back-to-back years, but Sadler reached uncharted territory thanks to Combatant.
As for Kosta and Pete Hronis, they became the first owners to threepeat as Big 'Cap champions, but they joined Charles Howard and the team of Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable LLC, and Schiappa in the three wins club. A rare achievement reserved for only a few, and thousands of fans saw it happen at Santa Anita. Instant history was made in front of their eyes.
Winning the Big 'Cap means a lot to local racing figures. Kosta Hronis talked about coming to the Big 'Cap as a kid and how starting a horse in it is an honor. When he first won the Big 'Cap in 2018, Sadler commented on being from the area and seeing many Big 'Caps. The comments of both Hronis and Sadler are proof positive of what the race has meant over the course of individual lives.
Waiting can be a difficult process, but it can yield dreams and rewards. John Sadler and Hronis Racing are walking proof of that.