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Hovdey: Baltas wants to keep his room at the top

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Richard Baltas awoke on the morning of Jan. 1, 2018, with a tough act to follow. He had just wrapped up his best season as a trainer, capping the year with a final flurry on Dec. 30 with a victory in the Grade 3 Robert J. Frankel Stakes and a 2-3 finish in the Grade 1 American Oaks. In a perfect world, Baltas wished 2017 could go on forever, but then someone pushed the cosmic reset button and it was back to square one.

For the last five years, the fortunes of Baltas, 57, have been on a consistent rise to reach $4.9 million in purse money for his clients last year. The mark was good for 22nd in the national standings, clustered in a group that included such household names as Ken McPeek, Ian Wilkes, Shug McGaughey, and Wesley Ward.

“It was a total team effort,” said Baltas, who gives ample credit to his wife, Debby. “I was fortunate enough to pick up a few more clients. I have a lot of good people working for me, and we went out and found some good horses at sales, mares with some pedigree and residual value.”

Every trainer has an origin story. Some have enjoyed a steady climb to success, others struggled mightily before landing a break, and some, like Baltas, rode a roller coaster that dared them to hang on tight.

This is the same Richard Baltas who defeated reigning Horse of the Year Tiznow in the 2001 Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita with the former claimer Freedom Crest, then took his horse to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in New York. By 2009 he had given up the struggle to maintain a public stable and went to work for other trainers, first as an assistant for Southern Equine in Louisiana and then back in California with Barry Abrams.

“I was training horses and pretty much starving,” Baltas said. “I had maybe eight horses for lower-end clients who weren’t paying me. It’s a very tough business. You have to really have a passion for it, to get up early in the morning, seven days a week. And nobody gives anybody anything. Any success you have, you earn it.”

During 2016, it was a collection of fillies who led the way for Baltas and his clients. Forever Darling won the Santa Ynez. Paulina’s Love took the Buena Vista. Mokat added the San Clemente, and Goodyearforroses ended the season with a score in the Robert Frankel, a race taken off wet turf.

“We try to find horses that can make their owners a little profit, but it’s hard to make money in this business,” Baltas said. “I think most people own horses for the fun of it. Any time you can have fun and not lose your shorts, I think you’re in pretty good shape.”

In 2017, the Baltas fillies were in top form again. Goodyearforroses came right back to win the Santa Ana. Hillhouse High and Mokat finished one-two in the Royal Heroine. Madam Dancelot gave the trainer his second straight San Clemente, and then came Midnight Crossing’s upset in the year-ending Frankel.

“I’ve had good sprinters, like Big Macher, and dirt horses,” Baltas noted. “It just seems like most of what we’ve bought lately are fillies we liked because of the pedigree and the residual value. I’d like to buy younger horses, but a lot of people don’t like to go to the yearling sales and take the risk of waiting two years to see their horse run. I love to do that. The funnest part of the game is buying a yearling and trying to turn him into a stakes horse.”

Baltas does allow boys in the barn. The recycled Juddmonte stayer Inordinate won the 2017 San Juan Capistrano, and in 2016 the heavy lifting was done by the gelding Free Rose, winner of the La Jolla and Del Mar Derby. After a seven-month absence, Free Rose returns to competition on Saturday at Santa Anita in the Grade 2 San Gabriel.

Now 5, Free Rose contributed only one start and $24,000 to the stable total in 2017, when the son of Munnings finished fourth in the Shoemaker Mile last June, beaten two lengths by Bal a Bali.

“We were getting ready to run in the Eddie Read at Del Mar, and then he colicked,” Baltas said. “It was very hot that day when he worked, and he got a little stressed. He’s the kind of horse you need to keep a pretty close eye on. They had to open him up to get him untwisted, but we got him to the clinic soon enough that they didn’t have to take out any of the colon. He needed 90 days after that.”

Free Rose will be ridden by Rajiv Maragh in the nine-furlong San Gabriel over what figures to be firm turf. His primary opposition should come from the multiple stakes winners Isotherm, Itsinthepost, and Flamboyant, with Win the Space, Top of the Game, and He Will adding depth to the field.

“He’s as sound as he’s ever been, if not sounder, but he might need a race,” Baltas said. “His last two works were very good, so we’ll see if he still wants to run. I know he’s not the prettiest mover in the world, but he has a really big heart.”

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