Trainer Steve Specht got up at 2 a.m. on Thursday, drove to the barns at Golden Gate Fields and loaded two 3-year-olds on a horse trailer for a seven-hour drive to Santa Anita. The packer was Specht, the loader was Specht and the driver was Specht.
He does it all, including making sure that the wheel bearings had been properly packed earlier in the week.
“The last thing you want is to break down or have an accident on the road with a couple horses,” Specht said.
Specht, 69, has been around for a long time, starting his training career in Illinois in 1977. His horses have run almost 8,500 races and he is closing in on 1,400 wins. His horses have earned more than $25 million in purses.
Yet he relishes the small barn atmosphere, with about 20 horses at Golden Gate. There is nothing he won’t do, including mucking, taping and even driving.
“Most of the commercial vans want to leave in the middle of the day,” Specht said. “But if I leave at 3:30 or 4 a.m., I get in about 10:30-11. This way the horses get settled and get right back on their regular feed. If I were to do it commercial, they may not get in until 8 p.m. or so and they are off schedule. You always try and do the right thing for the horse.”
One of his two horses, Tomlin, at 15-1, probably looks overmatched in Saturday’s Grade 2 $200,000 Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, one of three graded stakes on the card. It’s because of the presence of Bellafina, an Eclipse Award finalist and on a very short list of best 3-year-old fillies in the country. But Tomlin finished third in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez behind Bellafina and Mother Mother about a month ago at Santa Anita. And in that race, she seemed a little green with room to improve.
“I didn’t drive down here with any unrealistic expectations,” Specht said with a chuckle. “The idea that she can outrun Bellafina [if she’s running her best], I would probably have to have my head examined.”
Specht was very clear why he had to make the drive south with Tomlin and a colt, Unbridled’s Skye, who will run in a $57,000 allowance race.
“The problem is I don’t have races that I can run [at Golden Gate],” Specht said. “They just don’t have races like that written, so I have to come south.”
Specht is nothing if not known for his truth telling. Owner Larry Williams, who has raced at least 100 horses with Specht over 17 years, had one overreaching thought about one of his trainers. “Steve has always been very honest with me,” Williams said.
Dan Kiser, the racing manager for Williams, made sure to point out the same thing before explaining why this almost two-decade relationship has flourished.
“He’s the most honest guy I know,” Kiser said. “And he’s a great horseman. Every morning he goes to every stall and checks every horse’s legs. Other trainers use assistant trainers but not him. He’s very hands on.”
While the horses love him, some people find Specht a little brusque.
“People who don’t know him are a little intimidated by him,” Kiser said. “But he has a heart of gold. He can get real emotional and that’s something else I like about him. And he just loves those animals.”
Kiser remembers one incident several years ago that cemented their relationship.
“I think you learn more about people during the worst of times,” Kiser said. “We had a horse several years ago that broke down in the morning. Steve took it so hard that for a couple of days he considered quitting training. He just took it so bad and was going to quit until he realized he couldn’t do anything else. He just cares that much.”
Specht has been schooled in one thing only, horses. His father was a trainer and Specht says he’s been in the business since he could walk. His only respite was when he was in the military. He’s seen the business change through the years, and from his perspective, not for the better.
“There are too many rules,” Specht said. “The people running the business don’t ask the people who have been it for a long time. You’ve got people on the racing board who have never been in the business.
“The big guys are taking over everything and the small guy doesn’t get a fair shake. All I hear is they want bigger fields and then they give guys 60-70-80 stalls and they don’t want to run their horses against each other. They just keep shooting themselves in the foot.”
And he loves the memories of the past, and misses those times when racing was at the top.
“I was younger then and raising hell, now I’m an old man going to bed at 7 p.m.,” Specht said. “Things seemed to be bigger and better back then. The big horses stuck around longer. You had Kelso and Secretariat sticking around. Now they’ve done away with handicap racing. If you have good 3-year-old, he’s gone by 4. We don’t really have heroes anymore, somebody to root for.”
Specht will get back in his truck to haul his two horses back to Golden Gate about 3 or 4 a.m. on Sunday morning. If he had a passenger, no doubt the ride would be filled with stories, both of the past and ones he continues to make.