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Horse racing: Santa Anita races spark mixed feelings for this horse trainer

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Trainer Steven Specht, right, hugs jockey Frank Alvarado after Grand Slam Smile’s victory in the Leigh Ann Howard California Cup Oaks on Jan. 13, 2024 at Santa Anita Park. (Benoit Photo)

Steve Specht motors to Santa Anita this week with a trailer full of well-trained horses and untamed emotions.

The three horses come from Golden Gate Fields to compete on Saturday’s program of stakes for California-breds, led by a tenacious 3-year-old filly named Grand Slam Smile.

The emotions come from what’s happening to racing back in Northern California, where Specht, 74, is the dean of thoroughbred trainers but unsure how much longer he’ll hang on.

“I don’t want to (retire),” Specht said on the phone from his barn at Golden Gate Fields, in Albany, California. “They’re kind of forcing it on me.”

“They” are the racetrack operators and regulators who Specht sees making life difficult for him and others in California racing, especially San Francisco Bay Area racing. If you want to understand the pain race trackers there are feeling these days, listen to Specht. He’ll put it bluntly and sometimes profanely, with the occasional apology for ranting too long.

The hurt begins with the end of Golden Gate Fields, now scheduled to close after the races of June 9, a little later but no less permanently than was originally scheduled under a plan announced in July 2023 by the Stronach Group.

For Specht, shifting operations to Northern California’s new racing hub at the Alameda County Fairgrounds track in Pleasanton would be hard for practical reasons. It’s a 56-mile drive from where he and his wife Nancy live in Santa Rosa to Golden Gate, and after 33 years he can practically do that on autopilot. It’s 88 miles from Santa Rosa to Pleasanton, which would be an unmanageable daily commute.

But it’s more than a practical matter.

“I love the horses, and I love the competition. I probably would be here until I went face-first in the shed row. But now they say they’re closing this place down, which amazes me,” Specht said of Golden Gate, the 83-year-old track where Citation, Silky Sullivan, John Henry and Lost in the Fog raced, where Bill Shoemaker recorded his first win and Russell Baze his 10,000th.

“It would be a shame to see this place go,” he said. “It’s a beautiful facility. It sits right here on the bay. You get the best view in the whole Bay Area looking out of the men’s bathroom (window) across the bay at the city (San Francisco). Believe me, it’s better than being in the city looking across the bay at Oakland.

“I don’t understand this move (closing Golden Gate),” Specht said. “Of course, I don’t really understand much the Stronach organization does. I think they’re more in the real estate business than the horse racing business.”

The hurt runs beyond Golden Gate Fields for Specht, stemming as well from the impact of American racing’s new regulations and testing regimens designed to reduce equine injuries, changes he acknowledges include “some beneficial things” but which he thinks go beyond “common sense.”

This is the view of a racing lifer. His work began at the stable of his father, Illinois trainer Robert Specht. Steve began his own training career in Illinois in the 1970s and moved to the Bay Area in the 1980s.

“My dad trained horses at Cahokia Downs and Fairmount Park,” he said. “At the time, if he had a $2,000 horse, we thought we had a champion. Now I’ve got horses that are running in stakes. You work all your life with a bunch of cheapies and gradually build up to some decent horses. Now, (the thought that) you’re maybe going to give them away, it’s kind of hard to take.”

If he retires, Specht would have time to sail his boat and fish, and for him and Nancy to visit their daughters and grandchildren in North Carolina, Chicago and Petaluma.

Before making that decision, he has three of those stakes horses to saddle on what could be his last trip to Santa Anita.

On Saturday – when the California Gold Rush card includes five stakes for Cal-breds – Grand Slam Smile runs in the $125,000 Melair Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1-1/16 miles on the main track; Passarando goes in the $100,000 Crystal Water for 3-year-olds and up at a mile on turf; and Tam’s Little Angel is entered in the $100,000 Fran’s Valentine for fillies and mares at a mile on turf. All are owned by Larry and Maria Williams and ridden by Frank Alvarado.

Grand Slam Smile is the special one. The daughter of Smiling Tiger and Royal Grand Slam has four wins and two seconds in six starts, and she’s 3 for 3 when Specht has brought her to Santa Anita. Her 2¼-length win in the $200,000 California Cup Oaks in January was typical: She was in a battle for seven-eighths of a mile, and put her opponents away in the last furlong.

“When she’s had a shot (at winning), she gives it all,” Specht said.

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