April 29, 2019
Richard Baltas has been training racehorses for over 20 years, give or take. XBTV recently sat down with the conditioner at his home base of Santa Anita Park to discuss his long career, hard-fought success, wife Debby, and how he got his start in the world of horse racing.
Could you ever have envisioned when you were a kid that you would have a barn full of horses at Santa Anita, being a grade-one winning trainer?
“No. I mean, I was a fan in the beginning. Used to come here with my dad. When I was 13, he used to love to go to the races and I was a fan of the trainers. I didn't really know exactly what they had to deal with. I just saw the glamor side of it in the paddock. That's the glamor side of being a trainer.”
Was there any trainer in particular that you were like, "Wow, I want to be like him”?
“I think Charlie Whittingham. He always had three horses in the grade-ones. I think it was San Juan Capistrano, at the end of the meet. He had these three horses and they were an entry. They all had to run coupled, so everything was three to five. He'd run one, two, three…or one, two...Yeah, I was just a big fan of racing. I was a big fan.”
What was it about the horses that fascinated you?
“I just like the game itself. I love the way the animals looked. I love the jockeys. I love the sport of it. I really was a fan that way. I wasn't really into the gambling part. I mean, my dad went because he used to gamble.
“But, I remember being a kid and buying a little computer and I punched in the numbers for the racing form, and I ended up getting some little toy they had. But anyway, I bought it and I used it. I was always a fan.”
Tell me about your riding career. Did you take lessons as a kid?
“I grew up in Huntington Beach. Then, I was in the restaurant business. In Huntington Beach they have an equestrian center. I looked it up and I went over there and I took some riding lessons for a while. First I had to groom the horse. It was an older horse and he didn't really do much, but he didn't have a lot of fire.
“Anyway, I remember this girl who used to teach me to ride and I tacked up the horse and brushed him off. And then I got up on him. I wasn't very good. And she told me, ‘Oh, you've got to ride the horse with no stirrups. Use your legs.’ My legs were pretty sore afterwards and I did it for a little bit. I took about 10 lessons and I was like, ‘you know what, I'm going to keep my feet on the ground.’”
Tell me about enrolling at Cal Poly. What kind of courses did you enroll in to try and learn a little bit more about horses?
“I went to Cal Poly Pomona and they had an Arabian school. I guess Kellogg’s cereal owned all the land. I think they donated it to Cal Poly, so they had to keep the equestrian center there. I took some anatomy classes. I just really wanted to learn. Now that I look back on my life ... I was thinking I had a strong desire to do this, but I didn't realize until now how bad I really wanted to do it.”
In 1983, you were 21. You moved to Kentucky to enroll in the Kentucky Equine Institute. Tell me a little bit about that and the placement program, where you wound up.
“In 193 I went to the Derby with my sister. I found out about the Kentucky Equine Institute. It was put on by the Horsemen of Lexington, and they really wanted to teach people to work on the farms. I enrolled and I packed up my car. I left my girlfriend, said, ‘I'm leaving. I'm going to Kentucky.’
“It was quite an experience. It was at the Horse Park, in a barn. They had a classroom and they showed us everything from reproduction to walking the horses. I remember getting dragged around the paddock by a yearling, holding onto the shank and just getting dragged all over the place. It was good because we were learning a lot in a short period of time. We did a lot of field trips.
“The first weekend I was there, they sent me to this farm, Pillar Stud. My first job was to cut the grass. They had a little push mower. If you've ever been to Lexington, you realize that the roads have a little dip on the side, a small hillside that leads down to the fence-line. I had to do the little dip on the side.”
That's a lot of grass.
“It was on a hill too. They said, ‘just go down to that gate.’ Well, the gate was a mile away. And I was like, ‘Oh, you want me to go all the way down there and then come back?’
"Anyway, I was doing that. They picked me up in the truck and said, ‘Hey, we've got to go to breeding shed.’ I had to hold the mare's tail. And the first thing that happened, the stallion jumped up and I'm holding the tail. I think it was a green stallion because he started to tip to the side. They said, ‘Hold him up. Hold him up!’ So I was like this (mimicking, laughing.)
“So, that was my start. Then I rubbed yearlings at Spendthrift Farm. So that was really cool.”
Were you awestruck by Spendthrift?
“Yeah, I was. Spendthrift was owned by Leslie Combs. I was driving through to park my car and Seattle Slew was on the right...Raise a Native, Exclusive Native, Affirmed…they were all there at the same time. I think they had a full brother yearling to Mr. Prospector. That was when the yearlings were going for $10 million in the '80s, I think, wasn't it? Something like that.”
“Yeah, I think they had someone fly in to see the horse. He was a beautiful yearling, but it's almost like he was too big. So I don't know if he ever really did anything, but I know he brought a lot of money. I think they sold him privately. Then we went to Saratoga and I worked a yearling sale up there.
“Oh, so after we rubbed, prepped all the yearlings at Spendthrift, we got them all in a line and they vanned them all up to Saratoga and we went to Saratoga for the sale. Me, being a fan of racing, going to Saratoga was great. So we went and saw Lady Secret beat Mom's Command in the test. And she was, whatever, 10 to 1. Because Mom's Command won the Triple Tiara. I remember all this pretty well. I remember that. And then went to the sale and I think I came back."
You took a job in the '80s working for Tommy Skiffington, along with Naill O’Callahan, Lenny Dunn, Eddie Kenneally. That's quite a crew to come into. Did those guys run you around a little bit?
“Yeah. Well, they were all Irish, first of all. And I was a California boy. I was still pretty green, but yeah, they told me to get the key to the quarter pole and all that.”
Did you? Did you try?
“No. I mean, they got me for about a half an hour. I had to ask a couple of people in the barn. The girls that worked there, they felt sorry for me. So they told me what was going on.”
In 1991 you made the plunge. The first runner you sent out was a winner, Latchburn. Tell me about that day.
“I got my trainer's license in 1991. And, my father, he knew a guy. My father is Greek, my mother is Italian. But my father had a friend that was Greek that he knew from high school that owned horses at Turf Paradise. I got my license and he goes, ‘let me get you a couple of horses to train.’ So they sent the horse from Turf Paradise. I think I had him a month. I breezed him a half and he worked pretty good. The first horse I saddled, yeah, was Latchburn. Georgie Velasquez rode it right into the Winner's Circle.”
How did that feel?
“I was surprised. I thought, well, this is easy. But it really wasn't. I think the horse was prepared by the other guy for the most part. I mean, I just had him for a month. I had some other horses that I ran at the Los Angeles County Fair, and won a couple races there. They used to run at Los Alamitos, the Orange County Fair.”
So you were well on your way, but that didn't last for long. What happened?
“Well, the guy, my owner kind of went belly-up. So I went belly-up. Yeah.”
So then you went to go work for Richard Mandella.
“You know what's funny, I got my resume all made up. I was like… ‘I went to the school, I worked for Tom Skiffington, I trained a couple of horses…this is my history.’ It was always hard to break in, in California. I don't know why it was so hard. There's more opportunity on the east coast and that's kind of why I went to that school.
“So, I gave Richard my resume. He wasn't there that day, but his assistant was, Jed. Richard called me that night and said, ‘Come to the barn.’ I went to the barn the next morning and he actually made me be a groom for about a week. There was a filly named Golden Treat that Golden Eagle Farm owned. He said to rub three, four horses and to come back every afternoon and graze that filly.”
But you'd already been a trainer. How did that feel for you having already been a trainer?
“I didn't feel like it was any big deal. I mean, I was happy to be in his barn because he was the man and he had some really, really nice horses. It was like the who's who of horse racing at that time. He had so many nice horses. It's nice to be around nice horses because I've always been a fan of the game. I'm really a fan of the horse.”
How long did you stay there?
23 months to the day. You remember that?
So then you went back training on your own.
Tell me about Freedom Crest, who you claimed.
“I lived in Orange County, so I'd go to Los Alamitos once in a while, to watch the races. I met a guy named Calvin who I'm training for again right now. He wanted to claim a horse. He put the money in the account and said, ‘let's go look for a horse.’
“We were in the paddock and it was a maiden 32 claiming race. We had two horses picked out. He asked, ‘Which one do you like better?’
“I said, 'I kind of like that bigger stouter looking horse, Freedom Crest.' He ran up north.
"We claimed him that day and he ran second with Victor Espinoza. I watched him train a couple of days. He was just kind of ... He just wasn't listening. He needed to be a gelding. So we gelded him. He had a few complications.
“It took him a month or two before he got over it. When I stretched him out and took the blinkers off, he got really good. He won the one other than, the two other than. I remember Victor was riding him and he went two in a row for fun at Hollywood Park. I was like, ‘Okay, we're going to run in the San Pasqual at Santa Anita.’
“Well, Victor was riding a lot for Bob Baffert, so Victor took off. I asked Gary Stevens to ride the horse.”
Your first graded stakes.
“Right into the Winner’s Circle, yeah. Gary. That was shocking. It meant a lot to me because I had like a four-horse stable. I thought, 'you know what, I can do this. I can do this.'”
2007 you met your now wife, Debby. How did you meet her?
“Debby and I met at Hollywood Park at the Stable Café. I had a few horses back then. She was running the kitchen. I just was going in there a lot. I asked her on a date.”
How did you manage to charm Debby because you two are very different personalities?
“Well, I don't know about that. I think she might have liked me a little bit too. I don't know why. Yeah. I kind of got a hint that she kind of liked me, so we kind of ... She gave me her phone number. I gave her a call. I asked her out for dinner. That's how it started.”
All right. So you were dating a couple of years. 2009 all of a sudden you quit training again. You up and move to Louisiana to go work for Eric Guillot. What brought that around?
“I was still a struggling trainer. I wasn't making any money. I was in my 40's and I was like, ‘Well, either I go into debt or I can take this job working for a pretty good outfit that was going to pay me really well to be an assistant trainer.’
“I told Debby I was leaving and she really didn't like it at the time.
“I moved to Louisiana two weeks before Christmas and was like ...”
“Yeah, I was at the Waffle House on Christmas Day and I was all by myself…Debby kept visiting me though. She kept flying out and seeing me once every month or two months. So I thought, wow, this girl really sticking by me. Most girls would run the other way.”
So you worked for a couple of years for Eric. What's it like working for Eric Guillot?
“Oh, he's a funny guy.”
How would you describe him? To someone that didn't know Eric Guillot, what would you say?
“A lot of barking.”
You learned well then.
“He likes to bark. He talks a lot. At the end of the day he's got a pretty good heart, I think.”
All right. So we're getting the timeline going. You come back, it's 2011. You get married.
“2011 I got married. I think it was a pretty nice wedding. I was working for Barry Abrams. I came back here to work for Barry and got engaged. I asked her to marry me, which was kind of crazy. I was like 47. That was the first time I ever asked anybody to marry me.
"Yeah, it was a big move. There were a lot of people from the race track invited. And, my wife pretty much ... She put the wedding together. It was a really good wedding. You should have been there.”
I should have been there.
So you were working for Barry. Tell me the conversation you had with Debby when you decided with one horse that you were going to quit working for Barry. What did you tell her?
“Well, it was Thanksgiving Day and my wife was running the kitchen at Hollywood Park, so she was doing like 1,000 dinners, giving away 1,000 dinners. I don't know…I was like, ‘it's time for me to move on.’ I told my wife, I said, ‘Listen, me and Barry are going to split up. I'm going to go out on my own.’
“And she looked at me and she goes, ‘What are you going to do with one horse?’
“I said, ‘Just watch.’ She had a job. She could have paid the bills. Anyway, that's what happened. I had one horse, then I had two, then I had five.”
So what brought the turnaround? In looking at your stats, you had your first winner in ’91. You had not won more than 11 races a year up until 2013. That's a long time. Then in 2013 all of a sudden everyone's like, ‘where did Richard Baltas come from?’ What happened?
“I don't know. You know, maturity, getting more horses ... I mean, I always thought I was pretty good with horses. I just never really had the opportunity. So I started claiming horses, and then I think Barry helped me out. He sent me a horse and I won with that one. Then, I got a few more. It snowballed. I have some really good people working for me that helped me get some horses in the barn. It just kept going.”
How did you pick up new clients? Because it seems like you’re not training for some of the who's who in horse racing.
“We bought some horses out of the sales that other trainers had. Then we did well with them. So I think people started noticing when you start putting horses in the Winner’s Circle that maybe this guy can get the job done.”
You're now a grade-one winning trainer. You won a grade-one at Keeneland with Big Macher. How do you feel looking back with how hard you've worked over the course of the past couple of decades?
“It feels good. I mean, I finally feel like, it was all worth it because at times I didn't think ... That's why I always stuck with the business because I loved it. That's why I went to be an assistant trainer because I loved it. It didn't bother me to take a step back to move forward because I don't really know if taking the step back working for a really good outfit is taking a step back. I mean, if you like the animals and you like working around them and like to figure them out and like them to be happy, it's a great game. There's a lot of things that go along with being a trainer that aren't easy.”
Watching you around the barn … You're a very hands-on trainer. You like to get in the stall. I've seen you rip bandages off because they weren't put on right. You're one of those guys that likes to feel the horses' legs each and every day. Is that how you like to be considered as a hands-on trainer?
“I think so. I mean, that's how I started. When I worked for Tommy Skiffington in New York, I was a foreman. I had to run all the elastic bandages on all the horses. The grooms weren't allowed. They were only allowed to put the polos on. So I had to check all the legs and run all the elastic bandages. I know how they're supposed to be put on. I know how to check legs. I think that experience ... I think if you really look at all the really good horsemen, they started from the bottom. And I think they all really know horses. And it's not a game you learn overnight.”
Would it be fair to say you wear your heart on your sleeve, Richard?
“Yeah, sometimes that gets me in trouble. I like to tell it like it is. I don't pull any punches. Sometimes I get a little excited and I might bark a little bit at a jockey agent.”
Would you say you bark a bit or a little bit?
“I'm getting better. I mean, I did it today, actually, to Prat and Prat’s agent.”
Barked a lot?
“I barked at him a little bit because he's always changing his mind.”
Does that help you get it all out because you don't take any of that home with you?
“I don't know. I haven't had a heart attack yet."
What are you most proud of?
“I'm proud that I finally was successful in this business. I've come a long way and I never thought I would be in the position I'm in now. So that makes me feel really good, a sense of accomplishment that my life wasn't a total waste.”
Speaking to Debby, she is so proud of you. I mean, so proud of you. How does that make you feel?
“That's what she told you?”
Oh yeah, yeah. She did.
“Okay, all right. Well, that makes me feel great.”
Does she tell you that?
“No. I think she tries to keep me in line. She's always on me. She knows how hard I've worked. She's seen me struggle. We have a good life today.”
What do you do for fun?
“What do I do for fun? I go to the movies. I go to Vegas once in a while. I think we're going to Vegas next week for our anniversary for a couple of days. Going to go see Gwen Stefani.”
“Yeah. Got some nice seats there in the front. I don't take more than two days off in-a-row. I know I need to take more time off. You know, the horse business, it's a lifestyle. I know a lot of guys that don't take long vacations. They're here.”
What would you want people to know about Richard Baltas?
“That he's honest and hardworking and what you see is what you get.”
You want a dog?
“I kind of like this dog, yeah. He's ... Oh…”
A little jumpy.
“He's a good dog... Yeah, I think I'm going to have to get a dog.”
One other thing, you're pretty involved with thoroughbred aftercare. I've seen you send a couple of horses that perhaps you could have dropped down…you've sent them on to do other things. How do you feel about that? I mean, is this something that you strive for?
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, I really believe in a lot of the horses. Now there are so many places to go. There are so many aftercare options. There are so many places you can donate your horse to. And they're going to have a good life. I mean, I would never want to see a horse have to run when he's hurting.
I try to tell my owners that, 'Hey, this is time for the horses to retire.' And there's always somewhere to go now. I think the business has done an unbelievable job. I think the places they have in California ...I know they have a lot in Kentucky. There's always somewhere to put these horses when they're done running.”
Rich, you talked about your dad. Is he still around?
“No, he died about 15 years ago. I mean, he saw me saddle a couple of winners... I think he was pretty proud of me. He didn't get to see the success I really have now. That being said, this was a little bit for him too.”
What's the most important piece of advice he ever gave you?
“Don't screw up. My dad was kind of tough. He was a tough guy. We didn't always see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. Actually, when I was a teenager we kind of got into it a little bit. At the end of the day, I made a lot of peace with him before he passed. I was there for him when he died. It was a good end of the story.”
You talked a lot about being a fan, a fan of the sport, a fan of the horse. What is it that brings you into this? What made you a fan?
“I just think it's a great sport. I was actually was kind of afraid of horses. I thought they were such magnificent animals, and I thought the racing game was so magnificent. The whole thing, I was in love with it. That's why I tried so hard to do it.
I did everything I could to learn. I remember coming to Santa Anita and walking over here asking for someone to sign me in (to the barns) and they wouldn't sign me in. So I had to go back ... ‘Well, maybe if I learn a little bit more about horses and then I go back east ...’ That's how I learned. I really wanted to do this. It's crazy when I look back it and see this is what I wanted to do.”
To a degree you're almost an overnight success 30 years in the making.
“That's true, yeah. I told people... my friends that don't have anything to do with horses, and I have a few of them, I said, ‘it's kind of like being an actor. You kind of know how to act, but you don't make it until you make it.’ There are a lot of struggling actors out there, and I think there's a lot of struggling trainers out there, that's kind of the way I looked at the business when I was struggling.”
You said when you walked Freedom Crest into the Winner's Circle in San Pasqual, you thought, yeah, I can get used to this. What happened afterwards?
“After that, I ran him in the Goodwood. We won and then went to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. We ran 13th and after I was stressed out and I just kind of checked out for a while. I took some time off.”
Did you ever think you would make it back?
“I tried some other jobs. I tried doing construction. That lasted about two weeks. I said I'll be back. I'll come back. I always missed horse racing. I was only out of it for maybe six months. I had to take care of some personal issues, I had to look at myself. I had to think about what's important and make some changes in my life.”
You talked about maturity that you’ve found now. What was that journey like to get there?
“I don't know. I think it just comes with age. I mean, some people do everything right the first time. I wasn't one of those people. I was one that I had to learn from the school of hard knocks. I think that helped mold me into the person I am. I learned a lot from my mistakes. I'll tell you what, even though I'm here now and doing really well, it's a tough, tough business. It's not an easy business.”
What would you have told your 21-year-old self?
“My 21-year-old self? I'd probably tell him that ... I don't know. I mean, I don't really regret anything I've done. I think partly the way I was raised, I had to learn the hard way.”
What are your goals?
“My goals now are to be happy. I want to be happy training horses. When I saw Charlie Whittingham training, I knew he was one of the reasons why I wanted to get into the game. He was 70 years old, 75 years old. I know he had plenty of money. He got up at 4:30, five o'clock in the morning seven days a week. I mean, who does that? That's when most people are retired. So what that told me when I was 21 years old, when I was looking at Charlie… I had money when I was very young. I had a lot of friends, but I wasn't happy. I saw it as a dead end. That's when I looked at him and said, ‘maybe that's what I want to do because maybe I want to be happy when I'm 70 years old.’
“I thought it was a business that I could do when I was older, and it would make me happy. That was one of my key reasons why I got into the business.”
Horses or people, what do you prefer?
“Oh, I think everybody that works around horses would prefer the horses. I like people, but some people, they're hard to deal with in this business. The horses kind of level you out. There's so much joy that goes with the horses and the horses winning. And, seeing the horses develop into being a good horse...I think being in this business if you're not a fan and you don't love the horse, you're not going to be successful.”
Are you a good loser?
“Not really, but I mean, I'm getting used to it. I'm getting used to losing because you can only win like 19% or 18% of the time. Yeah. I mean, when you win a race, it feels good, even a small race.”