03/24/2015 11:25AM

Baltas enjoying the ride with Big Macher

Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club
Big Macher trains Tuesday at Meydan ahead of Saturday's $2 million Golden Shaheen.

Claim a maiden for $20,000, and the last thing a person can realistically expect is to have a future stakes winner.

Or a future Grade 1 stakes winner. Or a horse good enough to send to Dubai for Saturday’s $2 million Golden Shaheen at Meydan Racecourse.

All of that so-called logic has vanished in the last 20 months for owners Tom Mansor and Brendan Bakir and trainer Richard Baltas. Big Macher, their former maiden claimer, is a Grade 1 winner starting in the Golden Shaheen.

“He’s been nothing but a blessing,” Baltas said last week before traveling to Dubai. “He has defied the odds.”

On Saturday, Big Macher will be one of three American-based runners in the Golden Shaheen, including the New York stakes winner Salutos Amigos and Secret Circle, who won the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita.

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Big Macher has won 6 of 15 starts and $557,678, highlighted by a victory in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at six furlongs at Del Mar last July. The Bing Crosby is the most prestigious of Big Macher’s four stakes wins in a career that began with a seventh-place finish in a $20,000 claimer for maidens at Del Mar in July 2013.

Baltas recalls that Big Macher was claimed at the suggestion of Bakir, who was interested in the gelding’s pedigree. Big Macher is by Beau Genius and out of the Kris S. mare Insight.

From that humble start, Big Macher has made an international traveler out of the 53-year-old Baltas.

“I’ve never been out of the country,” Baltas said. “I’ve been to Hawaii. That’s as far as I’ve gone. It will be nice to see another culture. It’s because of the horse.”

Baltas’s career has been going in new places in California in the last few years. His 50-horse stable – 40 at Santa Anita and 10 at San Luis Rey Downs – has grown to a record number at a time when he has cracked the top 10 at the tough Santa Anita winter-spring meeting. Through Sunday, Baltas had 14 wins since Dec. 26, leaving him tied for sixth in the standings.

“The hard work paid off, and the persistence,” he said.

Baltas began training in 1991 and spent the ensuing years running a small stable while working at times for trainers such as Richard Mandella and Tom Skiffington.

In 2001, Baltas won his first stakes with the former claimer Freedom Crest in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita. Freedom Crest later won the Grade 2 Goodwood Handicap in 2001. Baltas went 11 years before he won another stakes, finally doing so with Flashy Ways in the Surfer Girl Stakes at Santa Anita in October 2012.

During the 2000s, Baltas left California for nearly two years to work for trainer Eric Guillot at a farm in Louisiana before moving back to Southern California. He later worked as an assistant for Craig Dollase and Barry Abrams.

His return was one of personal and professional reasons. He was anxious to resume working on this circuit and to be reunited with his wife, Debby, whose family operated the backstretch kitchen at Hollywood Park until the track’s closure in December 2013.

Baltas, who has dealt with alcoholism, said his wife has had a stabilizing effect on his life. “I’ve been sober for 2 1/2 years,” he said.

Big Macher is the best-known horse in his stable. The gelding has started once this year, finishing fifth in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 31. Big Macher was ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita last November but won the Cary Grant Stakes for California-breds at Del Mar later that month.

Big Macher had a series of quick workouts at Santa Anita this month, including six furlongs in 1:09.20 on March 11. The gelding left for Dubai last week.

Last Sunday, with Baltas already in Dubai, the stable won the $98,000 Dream of Summer Stakes with Wild in the Saddle, a former $5,000 claimer. There are high hopes for runners such as Black Betsy, Lucky J Lane, Spanish Queen, and Unusual Fleet.

Lucky J Lane runs at Santa Anita on Friday. There are 2-year-old colts by Birdstone, Sky Mesa, and Super Saver and a filly by Bernardini who are well regarded for later this year.

“I’m getting better stock now,” he said. “It’s a slow process. I’ve got a good group of Cal-breds.”

The 3-year-old filly Black Betsy, in particular, is considered a potential stakes runner. By Jump Start, Black Betsy beat maidens in her debut at 6 1/2 furlongs March 7 despite grabbing a quarter at the start.

“She could be any kind of horse,” Baltas said.

The same was not mentioned about Big Macher in the summer of 2013. It was not until January 2014 that Big Macher won the first stakes of his career in the California Cup Sprint. As the year continued, the success grew and eventually led Baltas to acquire his first passport.

“Horses can take you all over the world,” he said. “It’s an amazing sport.”