John Sadler’s lifelong involvement with horses has reached a pinnacle this year with the success of undefeated four-year-old Flightline, the heavy favourite to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland on November 5. Winner of all five starts to date, Flightline, purchased for $1 million as yearling and co-owned by the Hronis family, captured the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar by a record 19-and-a-quarter lengths on September 3. The success has created a huge buzz leading into the Breeders’ Cup. Sadler, 66, began his involvement with horses in the showjumping ring as a teenager and has had a stable on the prestigious southern California circuit since 1979. A native Californian, Sadler is based at Santa Anita for most of the year and has trained more than 2,700 winners.

We realised Flightline was brilliant right off the bat. He’s never hidden his talent. They were very excited about him in Ocala, Florida, as a two-year-old before he even got here. They thought he was a star and right away when we started training him, we saw that he was different. We were excited when he got here because he looks like a million dollars – he’s a beautiful horse. He’s got the pedigree and when he first went into training we thought, ‘Wow, this is a lot of horse.’

I don’t think I’ve ever had a horse close to this level. Early in my career I had the filly Melair. She ran a mile on dirt in 1:32 and four-fifths at Hollywood Park in a one-turn mile. She put in a brilliant performance that day to beat the colts, Snow Chief included, in the Grade 2 Silver Screen Handicap in 1986. But we’ve never had a horse like this. We try to not get ahead of ourselves with Flightline; I want to be a good steward. We’re training him consistently and keeping him the same. He doesn’t have to get better and we’re not trying to get him better. We’re trying to keep him the way he is and right now he’s doing it.

The atmosphere at the Breeders’ Cup is going to be great. I think they’ll have one of their best Breeders’ Cups. It will be so exciting. As far as crowd size, they limited the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland and while it will be a maximum crowd, it won’t be 100,000 or anything like it. After the Breeders’ Cup, Flightline’s schedule will be determined. Two things could happen. He’s either going to race next year or he’ll go off to stud. Everybody has enjoyed the break of not having to think of that now. We’ll deal with that when we get there.

Flightline and Flavien Prat will bid to extend their winning run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic | Photo: Benoit Photo

Now, as I’m a little older, I’m getting better horses than I did when I was younger. My career arc is definitely on the upswing, because we have the right clients that are buying the right horses. I’ve been a solid professional my whole career and always had a full barn, because we always won races and did a good job.

I feel like I paid my dues. I loved the show horses – that has a close spot in my heart. I started riding when I was in junior high school and rode through high school before I went off to college. I really loved it. The only thing that slowed me up was I was getting pretty tall. Back in the day, those were small thoroughbreds, so I kind of outgrew my passion. I think I started with a good base of horsemanship before I came to the racetrack because I’d been riding horses. When you’re a little kid, they teach you how to groom them and take care of them. I think I had a leg-up before I started.

The usher of the box-seat section at Santa Anita introduced me to the Hronises. One day, they said they wanted to get a racehorse and the usher said, ‘I know who to introduce you to’. They have really changed the barn and when we had some success together, they ‘re-upped’. Our first big horse was Lady Of Shamrock. She had a good career and sold well as a broodmare. She’s thrown babies in Europe, some pretty good ones, too. They’ve kept investing.

I’ve won at the Breeders’ Cup; you hope to do more towards the Kentucky Derby. We’ve got a good crop of two-year-olds but we’re not as big as some. We don’t have the numbers of a Baffert, Pletcher, Asmussen or Chad Brown. I get a smaller group, but of good quality.

Perception is the biggest issue facing American racing. I had lunch with some people recently and when I told them how well we’re doing with the injuries and the issues we’ve had in the last few years, they were like, ‘Wow.’ They don’t hear the good things, only the negative stuff. We have good news and we’ve got a great story to tell but sometimes it’s difficult to get it out there.

I’ve had so many great moments. My first Breeders’ Cup win with Accelerate in the 2018 Classic, that was really one of the highlights. He was a hard-knocking horse. I like horses you have over a long period of time and run well every time. I won the Golden Shaheen Sprint in Dubai with Our New Recruit in 2004. That was a great trip, our international win, although it was a long time ago. I’d love to have a Royal Ascot horse with an early two-year-old and I’d like to have a European runner, maybe in the English Derby.