Nineteen colts who ran in the Santa Anita Derby have won the Kentucky Derby. Rock Your World would be the 20th. Safe to say, none have done it John Sadler’s way.
“We took an unconventional route,” said the trainer, “but it seems to be working.”
Starting from post 15, Rock Your World is the 5-1 morning line second choice behind 2-1 favorite Essential Quality for Saturday’s 6:57 p.m. post time. Rock Your World’s final work of :59.20 over 5 furlongs in California last Saturday only enhanced his standing.
But here’s the thing: Instead of the traditional dirt road to the first Saturday in May — all 146 Kentucky Derbies have been contested on dirt, after — the 64-year-old Sadler mapped out a unorthodox preparation plan for his fleet 3-year-old colt, the son of the Argentinian-bred and undefeated Candy Ride.
Unraced at two, Rock Your World did not debut until Jan. 1. He did so on grass, winning a maiden race at Santa Anita by 1 3/4 lengths On Feb. 27, Sadler returned to the grass where Rock Your World triumphed in the Pasadena Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths.
“He did everything wrong in that race,” Sadler said, “and he still won.”
Having conquered grass, Sadler switched surfaces, moving to dirt. Not just any dirt, but the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, where Rock Your World rolled to an impressive 4 1/4-length victory in a field of eight. He posted a 103 Equibase Speed Figure, the best by a 3-year-old this year.
“We always believed this horse could run on any surface,” Sadler said. “So we decided early on we were going to run on the grass, get a couple of races in and then try the big day.”
The Santa Anita Derby is a big day. It has been 28 years, however, since Sadler entered a colt in the sport’s biggest race on its biggest day.
“When you’re training these horses every day, the years kind of roll by,” Sadler said. “And it feels good to go back after a few years.”
A staple on the California circuit, Sadler has run just four colts in the Kentucky Derby. His best finish was his first — Corby’s sixth in 1993. Sidney’s Candy, the 2010 Santa Anita Derby winner, ran 17th, while stablemate Line of David finished 18th. Sadler’s Candy Boy finished 13th in 2014.
“The best trainers that were ahead of me, they were always learning something new,” Sadler said. “I hope I am included in that. I try not to be locked down on just one thing I do.”
The Long Beach native has won more than 2,400 races, including more than 120 graded stakes. His career highlight victory actually came at Churchill Downs in 2018 when Accelerate captured the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Same as with Accelerate, Rock Your World is co-owned by Pete and Kosta Hronis, owners of an 8,000-acre farm near Fresno that specializes in table grapes and citrus. The Hronis brothers own the colt along with Michael Talla, chairman of Sports Club, a collection of luxury health clubs.
Rock Your World was bred by Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally. “My mentor,” said Sadler of the 88-year-old McAnally, who trained both Candy Ride and dam Charm the Maker, and sold Rock Your World for $650,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
Ready for one more plot twist? No sooner had jockey Umberto Rispoli won the Santa Anita Derby aboard Rock Your World than Sadler decided to replace the 32-year-old Italian with the veteran Joel Rosario. Rispoli has never ridden in a Derby, though he will be aboard Brooklyn Strong come Saturday. Rosario won the 2013 running aboard Orb.
“That was a really tough decision for me,” Sadler said, adding that he still holds Rispoli in high regard. “I lost a lot of sleep on it. But Rosario has won more races with me than any other trainer in the country, more money. We have to deal with the hand we were played and we’re going to play it and hope we get lucky.”