07/21/2002 11:00PM

Specht right at home at Fair

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. - It may not be Del Mar or Saratoga, but as special as those tracks are to the racing industry, that is what the Sonoma County Fair is to northern California fair racing.

The 12 days of "wine country racing" here beginning Wednesday is the best on the northern California fair circuit. Two Kentucky Derby runners-up, Casual Lies and local hero Cavonnier, won their maiden races here, and the $100,000 Joseph T. Grace Handicap, scheduled for Aug. 3, was the first $100,000 Thoroughbred stakes on the fair circuit.

Many northern California trainers live in the Pleasanton area so the Alameda County Fair is particularly special to them. That's what the Sonoma County Fair is to trainer Steve Specht, a Santa Rosa resident.

"There was an ad in the local paper about me challenging Jerry Hollendorfer," Specht said, referring to the leading Northern California trainer. "He'll probably win more than I enter, but it's my hometown, and I like to win here."

Specht, who has won a training title here, has geared up for a good meet, partly by design and partly by circumstance.

"I just haven't had many racing," he said of his limited participation at Pleasanton and Vallejo. "I lost quite a few at Bay Meadows. They claimed five or six off me near the end.

"The last couple years, I didn't get to run horses I hoped to run here. Last year, I ran only four."

That should change over the next two weeks.

Specht said he had entered some horses at other fairs, "but they didn't get in. And there are some who were turned out but now are about ready to run."

Specht feels a little pressure to win at home.

"I've got neighbors who come out. Everybody shows up," he said.

"I'm partial to Santa Rosa. I think this fair is much better than all the others. You come out here on a weekday, and the grandstand is full. They lose more handle with people being shut out than they make at some places.

"We can get a few hot days, but, as a general rule, if you sit in the grandstand, you better have a jacket for late in the day."

The track is no longer open year-round as a training center, but Specht said the condition of the track attracts better horses to race at Santa Rosa.

"Overall, it's the fairest of all the tracks, and there's a good surface here," he said. "A couple years ago, speed didn't carry at all, but I've never had a problem with horses getting hurt."

Specht has no entries Wednesday but will run Benchclearingbrawl in a maiden race on Thursday. Hollendorfer has the one to beat in Wednesday's co-feature, a $12,500 claimer, with A Bunch of Maniacs, who is looking for his second straight victory.

AT A GLANCE

SANTA ROSA

LOCATION: 1350 Bennett Valley Rd., Santa Rosa

DATES: July 24-Aug. 5 (dark Tuesday, July 30)

POST TIME: 12:45 p.m. daily

PARKING: $4

ADMISSIONS: $5 to fair for adults (reserved seats $3)

STAKES: $50,000 Ernest Finley Handicap, 6 furlongs (3 YO & Up), Saturday, July 27; $40,000-added Luther Burbank Handicap, 1 1/16 Miles (3 YO & Up Fillies and Mares), Sunday, July 28; $40,000-added James F. Lyttle Handicap, 1 1/16 Miles (3 YO), Friday, Aug. 2; $100,000 Joseph T. Grace Handicap, 1 1/16 Miles (3 YO & Up), Saturday, Aug. 3; $40,000-added Redwood Empire Stakes, 5 1/2 Furlongs (2 YO), Sunday, Aug. 4; $40,000 Elie Destruel Handicap, 6 Furlongs (3 YO & Up Fillies and Mares), Mon., Aug. 5; plus eight stakes races for alternate breeds