05/18/2011 1:25PM

Emerald Downs: Steiner hopes for happy homecoming in Governor's Handicap


AUBURN, Wash. – Joe Steiner quit riding in 2006, a year after suffering a herniated disk and nerve damage in his left shoulder in a spill at Santa Anita. He returned to the saddle last month, renewed in health and spirit following six years in the slow lane. On Sunday, his comeback will bring him home to Emerald Downs, where he is scheduled to ride He’s All Heart in the $50,000 Governor’s Handicap.

Steiner, 46, lives in Monrovia, Calif., but he has been part of the local racing scene since he was knee-high to a horsefly. His maternal grandfather, Jack Leonard, was a jockey and trainer at Longacres. His uncle, also named Jack Leonard, was one of the Northwest’s top riders, winning more than 1,700 races. His parents, Joe and Sally Steiner, run the track kitchen, the Quarter Chute Café, on the Emerald Downs backside.

Steiner can count on a free meal when he visits, but getting a piece of the Governor’s purse will be more problematic. He’s All Heart has never won a stakes race. He will have to go through Noosa Beach, an eight-time stakes winner and Emerald’s 2010 horse of the meeting, to get his first one.

“We’ll have to have our running shoes on because he’s the real deal,” Steiner said of Noosa Beach, one of 11 horses nominated to the 6-1/2-furlong Governor’s, the season’s first stakes race for older horses and a pivotal marker on the road to the Grade 3, $200,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 21.

“I watched He’s All Heart’s film,” Steiner said. “He looks like a pretty decent horse. I can learn more just by looking at his head and watching him run than I can by what people say about him. He looks like he’s a smart horse and he’s got a beautiful stride. I liked what I saw.”

Steiner is winless since launching his comeback at Santa Anita on April Fool’s Day. He nearly got there with his first mount, a 34-1 shot named Woodland Flood who missed by a head in a $12,500 claimer. Steiner entered the week 0 for 10 at the current Hollywood Park meeting. Perhaps victory No. 1 will come Sunday, if not on He’s All Heart, then on one of his other mounts being arranged by Emerald-based agent Ken Greene, another old friend from Steiner’s formative years.

“Kenny’s a classic,” Steiner said. “He had my book back in 1985, I believe it was. He had me and four other guys, and I finished second with him at Longacres. We’ve always been friends, Kenny and I.”

Steiner said his comeback is progressing as planned.

“Business is slow, but I’m building it brick by brick and I think I’m sitting on some live ones right now,” he said. “It’s amazing, I’ve never felt better in my life. I think I have a greater appreciation for riding, my health is phenomenal, and it’s exciting. I’m having a blast.”

The leading apprentice in Southern California in 1981-82, Steiner enjoyed his best year in 1988, winning 125 races and nearly $1.2 million in purses. A year earlier, he won the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita aboard Saratoga Passage, a horse who began his career at Longacres. In 1996, during the inaugural Emerald Downs meeting, Steiner overcame what he said was an 0-for-60 nosedive to finish with 22 wins. Among his successes were stakes victories aboard Everlasting in the Washington Oaks and Judgment Hour in the Washington Championship.

He sandwiched a few years in Kentucky and Florida around his one season at Emerald in the mid-’90s, and then settled back into a routine in Southern California. Then came his fateful spill at Santa Anita, followed 11 months later by his forced retirement.

“Doctors advised me to retire,” he said at the time. “If I was 20, I wouldn’t care what the doctors said. But I’m 41, so I’m not going to leave in a wheelchair.”

Some months away from the track, a few unfulfilling jobs in the 9-to-5 world, and then a couple of years spent exercising horses for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert planted a seed that sprouted into a full-blown comeback this spring. The actual decision to return struck Steiner like a lightning bolt.

“I didn’t think about it very long, to tell you the truth,” he said. “In my mind, I was never going to ride again. But a few things happened in the past few months and it came together for me. I feel like I need to do this. This is where my heart is.”