Trainer John Sadler and owner Hronis Racing made history the hard way in the 83rd Santa Anita Handicap March 7, winning the $601,000 race for the third consecutive year and doing so with 9-1 Combatant after having to scratch defending champion Gift Box earlier in the day.
His victory followed those by Gift Box in 2019 and champion Accelerate in 2018, though his score was less probable. Both of those runners were among the favorites, while Combatant was an outsider, not having won a stakes before Saturday at Santa Anita Park.
Now he’s a Grade 1 winner, joining Gift Box and $1 Million TVG Pacific Classic winner Higher Power as older horses with that achievement in the Sadler stable. All three were bought as in-training racehorses by Hronis Racing, and saw their fortunes turn around with transfers to California to race for Sadler.
Saturday was just Combatant’s second start for them, and the 5-year-old Scat Daddy ridgling improved upon his prior start, a third-place finish in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes. Much more involved early than he had been in that race, he stalked from fourth as Brown Storm set the pace with quarter-mile fractions of :23.66, :47.87, and 1:12.37 in the 1 ¼-mile dirt race.
In fourth he remained until late on the second turn when jockey Joel Rosario called him into action. Then Combatant bid four wide, taking the lead in midstretch and lasting for a neck victory over an inside-rallying Multiplier, with pace-chasing favorite Midcourt another half-length back in third.
“As a little kid coming to the racetrack, we always came to the Santa Anita Handicap,” said Kosta Hronis, who, along with his brother, Pete, comprise Hronis Racing. “To be in the race is an honor and to win it three times in a row, that is just a tribute to John Sadler and his team.”
Rosario became available for Combatant when Gift Box was scratched with what Sadler said was an injured ankle. He replaced Umberto Rispoli, who had been named aboard at the time of entries March 4.
“It’s beautiful — it was nice to win and to win it for John,” said Rosario. “I feel sorry that my other horse [Gift Box] scratched, but this was a nice thing to make up for that.”
According to the trainer, the change required “double jock mount,” meaning that Rispoli would receive equivalent payment to Rosario’s earnings.
The winner was clocked in 2:02.32 for the distance, returning $21.20 for a $2 win wager as the fourth betting choice in the field of seven.
“Obviously we wanted to run Gift Box,” Sadler said. “This horse we were considering somewhere else, but I put him in as an insurance policy.”
That insurance policy paid off Saturday, coming in his second attempt at the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles. He had previously been 18th over the trip in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve in the slop at Churchill Downs for prior trainer Steve Asmussen.
Though he fared poorly in the Derby, he still placed in five stakes in 22 starts for Asmussen and then-owners Winchell Thoroughbreds and Willis Horton Racing. Then late in his 4-year-old year, he went through the Keeneland November breeding stock sale, where bloodstock agent David Ingordo purchased him for $220,000 from the Gainesway consignment.