Trainer Richard Baltas has been to the mountaintop and back. Three horses that the 62-year-old Belmont Heights resident claimed during his career – Freedom Crest, Big Macher and Going to Vegas – won graded stakes. It proved he knows how to develop horses.
Baltas also is familiar with the lowest of lows, completing a one-year suspension in December for widespread violations involving race-day supplements at Santa Anita in 2022. He also was fined $10,000 by the California Horse Racing Board. Overall, he missed a year and a half of training.
Baltas, who had close to 100 horses when he left, is starting over with about 30 while stabled at Santa Anita and San Luis Rey Downs. He doesn’t want to talk about the suspension. He’d rather look ahead and try to forget arguably the worst 18 months of his life.
“It (suspension) was a learning process,” Baltas said during an exclusive interview with the Southern California News Group this week. “A lot of good came out of it. I have to look at the positives, and I got to do some traveling to Europe and did some things I’d never done before because I was working all the time. I tried to stay positive. Went back to the gym, worried about my health, both physical and mental. Obviously I missed the horses because I’ve been doing it for a while, but I just tried to become a better person, trying to look at my faults and trying to correct them.”
It wasn’t just the suspension, though, that was a low point in Baltas’ life. During the time he was away from the sport he loves, his 93-year-old mother, Betty, died. Shortly thereafter, his 69-year-old brother, Alex, was killed in a car accident.
As it turns out, the suspension was a blessing when it came to his mom.
“I got to spend a lot of quality time with her before she passed, spending most of the day with her,” Baltas said. “She was in really good health and … the last couple of months she started declining, but she really only had a couple really bad days before hospice got there. I was there the whole time and it was (nice we got to spend the time together).”
Baltas’ brother was leaving work one day in a small car and was hit by a driver in a large truck that ran a red light.
“He made it for a little bit and then he succumbed to the injuries,” Baltas said. “But sometimes life happens and it’s how you handle it.”
Now Baltas is starting from scratch. The lessons he learned from New York trainer Tom Skiffington and Hall of Famer Richard Mandella are paying off. He knows building his stable back up is not going to be an overnight process. Some owners have stuck by him and others have left.
“It’s good. I’m plenty busy right now,” said Baltas, who took out his license in 1991. “I like being around the horses, like being there in the morning dealing with the horses. It’s gonna take time. When you’re training horses for a really long time and something like this happens, you basically have to start over. You gotta get new help … it takes time. The horses aren’t like you want them to be. It takes time. It takes time to develop your staff. It takes time to do all those things.”
Once he’s back to full speed, though, Baltas will fall back on lessons he learned from Skiffington, Mandella, Barry Abrams and Craig Dollase. He loves what he’s doing and takes great satisfaction from seeing a horse gradually improve.
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“I (like) developing horses into being graded-stakes winners,” Baltas said. “Just being with the horses day in and day out and trying to do the right thing. Seeing them develop. It’s fun to win a race, but it’s really fun to see a horse develop and become a graded-stakes winner or a Grade I winner. That’s really gratifying because you’re playing at the top level. It’s not easy to get to the top level if you don’t have the really big clients with deep pockets.”
Baltas was savvy enough with his money that he didn’t have to find a job during his suspension. As he says, “I basically had to work on Richard. The break was good for me.”
When he’s training, he normally gets up at 4 a.m. Not during the suspension.
“I got up at 6 instead,” he joked.
Follow Art Wilson on X @Sham73