Roger Stein’s hulking presence around the racetrack made him easy to recognize, be it in early years as a harness racing trainer or later when he switched to thoroughbreds. It was his larger-than-life personality, which he brought to radio listeners every Saturday and Sunday morning for almost three decades, that made him a horse racing institution in Southern California. He died Friday at 65.
Stein went off the air on June 25 of last year, his fight with diabetes, neuropathy and other medical issues too much for him to keep going. He had been in poor health for more than a decade and was unable to walk the last three years.
On Friday morning, after requesting last week to be taken off all life-prolonging treatments and being sent home, he died surrounded by family, according to his son, Sam Stein.
“When he was in the hospital he didn’t like the food, so he always brought a portable refrigerator and we would have to go out and buy him his meals,” said Barry Shapiro, a longtime friend and horse owner. “Just recently, he wanted a bigger TV, so he sent me out to buy a 36-inch TV for his room. We installed it and there was some trouble with the sound, so he had operations fix it. Everyone knew who he was.”
Stein started as a harness racing trainer in 1977 and found great success, winning 17 consecutive trainer titles, mostly at Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos.
“It was incredible that he would have more wins as a trainer than the leading drivers, who would go many times a night,” Sam Stein said.
In 1987, he moved to thoroughbreds and started 4,179 horses with 470 winners over his career. His horses won more than $14 million in purses.
“He won a lot of races,” said Bob Baffert, a friend and Hall of Fame trainer. “Those harness trainers are pretty good horsemen. He was smart and a good handicapper. He was pretty sharp, even beat me a few times.”
Through those years, Stein used his personality and knowledge of horses to recruit owners, all with the idea that it would be an adventure.
“I won 150 races with [trainer] Mike Mitchell, but I never had more fun than with Roger,” Shapiro said. “He would take chances, like buying a horse for $40,000 and then entering him into a stakes race. And sometimes it would work out.”
Stein was seemingly successful at whatever he did.
One of his biggest victories came against the California Horse Racing Board in 1988, when one of his horses tested positive for cocaine. The stewards, while saying he was being charged only because he was the trainer of record, suspended him for six months and fined him $2,000.
He fought the punishment for two years and eventually won, even though he believed it tarnished his reputation.
No doubt, Roger Stein liked a challenge.
“I remember going to the Wells Fargo Bank,” Sam Stein recalled. “He had a slip of paper from Bank of America offering a better interest rate. He says he wanted Wells Fargo to match it. They say, ‘Roger, we can’t do that.’
“They bring over the manager and he says he can’t do that. My dad says, ‘How much is in my account?’ There was about $1.1 million or some big number. He says, ‘I’ll take that in cash or you can write a check.’ They matched the rate.”
Stein stopped training about 10 years ago when it physically became too difficult.
“He probably had an IQ of a buck-eighty, and all of that, along with the fact he knew the business inside and out, are what made him a tremendous interviewer,” said Mike Willman, director of publicity at Santa Anita Park and host of a radio show that followed Stein’s broadcast on Sundays.
“All of that served him well in being an effective horse trainer as well. He knew what motivated people, racing secretaries in particular, and he established relationships that helped him place his horses in races where they’d be competitive.”
Stein’s twice-a-week, one-hour radio show lasted 29½ years, the latter half on what is now KLAA-AM (830).
“He would talk about whatever he wanted,” Shapiro said. “He’d tell the truth even if the track would no longer sponsor the show. He wouldn’t sidestep things. He was definitely controversial.”
Baffert was a frequent guest on his show.
“You had to be ready for him,” Baffert said. “He was a very intelligent guy. He should have been a lawyer. He always knew the answer but wanted to see how you were going to wiggle out of it.”
Stein also ventured into the world of collectible pens, where he started as a collector and then ran an online business.
“Everything he touched he did well,” Shapiro said.
Especially his time in radio.
“As much success as he had with harness horses and later thoroughbreds, I truly believe radio was his No. 1 love,” Willman said. “Especially later in his life, radio supplanted training as his true passion.”
Stein is survived by his mother, Beverly Stein, brother Rick, son Sam and daughter Shay Fillinger.
Services are pending.