10/28/2009 11:00PM

Next 1,000 won't be easy, either


The first time Steve Specht and Greg Gilchrist crossed paths was in the spring of 1969 at California's Fort Ord, where Gilly was a non-com just back from Vietnam and Specht was a fresh draftee from the Midwest. It was Gilchrist's job to impart what wisdom he could to the young soldiers, primarily in the form of basic survival skills, and it was their job to pay attention.

"Me just being back, and getting out in six months, I could give a damn what any of them did," Gilchrist said. "If they made it through, they were headed to a bad place anyway.

"We had a camp cook who ran the kitchen, name was May, and he had a pair of boxing gloves he kept at the back of the mess hall," Gilchrist went on. "When a trainee came over for KP, he'd make 'em put on the boxing gloves and go at it."

Gilchrist said that when he put Specht on KP one day, he warned the cook that Specht "could fight a little bit, so if I was him I'd leave those boxing gloves hung up."

"May said, 'Don't worry 'bout me, Gil. I'll show him the ropes,'" Gilchrist recalled. "Sure enough, Stevie made short work of him. And after that he got all the pie and cake he needed for the rest of the time he was there."

Forty years later - Thursday morning to be exact - Gilchrist ran into Specht on the Golden Gate Fields backstretch and made sure Steve understood exactly why he'd won his 1,000th race the previous afternoon.

"He beat me doing it, and I told him I was happy for him," said Gilchrist, who's won more than 1,500 himself. "But I'd looked at the other two horses he had in that day, and they didn't look like they had very good shots. So I told my rider that if it was Steve's horse up ahead of us to just go ahead and let him win. After all, I'm the man who made him what he is."

It is an everlasting shame that when the world descends upon California for the Breeders' Cup, as it will in the coming days, there is very little awareness of the people who help keep the game afloat in the northern half of the state. Other than Jerry Hollendorfer, who has Blind Luck in the Juvenile Fillies and Chocolate Candy in the Dirt Mile, the only trainer with a pre-entered horse and a trace of Northern California in his pedigree is Art Sherman, whose Summer Movie is buried deep in the also-eligible list of the Juvenile Turf.

Gilchrist's name is familiar in Breeders' Cup circles because of Soviet Problem, who just missed winning the 1994 Sprint, and Lost in the Fog, who lost the first race of his life in the 2005 Sprint but was voted champion anyway. Gilchrist was all set to run Indyanne in the Filly and Mare Sprint last year at Santa Anita, but she came down with a fever after entries and was scratched.

"I don't even have a good reason to come down and scratch one this year, let alone try to win one," Gilchrist said.

As for Specht, his best horse is the mare Lady Railrider, who is fresh from back-to-back wins in the California Cup Matron at Santa Anita and the Pacific Heights at Golden Gate. Trainers have been known to jump into a Breeders' Cup with less, and with a field of only eight likely for the $2 million Ladies Classic on Nov. 6, no one would have blamed him for taking a shot.

"We might test a little deeper waters somewhere down the road," Specht said. "If she hadn't run the other day, the only other place I really had to run her was in the Las Palmas at a mile on the grass that first Breeders' Cup Day. But I figured everyone from across the world is coming for the Breeders' Cup and would probably drag something along for that one, too. If I'm going to experiment with her on the grass, I'd rather do it here at home."

Unfortunately, Golden Gate Fields has become inhospitable lately for trainers who want to develop a good horse. In all of November and December, there are exactly four $50,000 stakes programmed, three of them for 2-year-olds. On top of that, Golden Gate management has closed the track for training on Mondays as a cost-saving move.

"Allowance races are getting more and more spread out, and your higher-priced claiming races are almost non-existant," Specht said.

Golden Gate is coming to the end of its first full season as the only major racing facility in Northern California, following the demolition of Bay Meadows in September of 2008. For many local horsemen, the consolidation of dates at Golden Gate has reduced commutes and eliminated the shipping horses back and forth across the bay. But between the impact of the faltering economy and the cost-saving measures imposed upon Golden Gate by its masters at the bankrupt Magna Entertainment, the near future does not look promising..

"It's not a real healthy climate right now," Specht said.

Guys like Specht are tough to discourage, though. In January of 2007, for instance, he shipped the Cal-bred McCann's Mojave from San Francisco to Miami to win the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at 33-1. Specht had his license even before he was drafted, and went on to train horses at just about every outpost in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic before migrating to California.

"I was 19 when I won my first race at Cahokia Downs in East St. Louis," Specht said. "Somebody said it took me 40 years to win a thousand races. At that rate I'm afraid I won't live long enough to win another thousand."

Of course, that doesn't mean he won't try.