01/22/2009 12:00AM

Specht shooting for another upset


Fans should expect a kinder, gentler Sunshine Millions at Santa Anita on Saturday, reflecting in some ways the sober nature of the times. There will be no microbrew festival, no skydivers, no horseback acrobatics. There will be a swimsuit contest - as mandated by the California Horse Racing Board - and a premium giveaway, in this case an AM/FM radio. But batteries, alas, are not included.

Contrast this to the earliest version of the festival staged at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, way back in 2003. Their common Magna Entertainment ownership pulled out all the stops, serving up great helpings of flash and flesh. It was all so insane, the memories are hazy. "Girls Gone Wild," I think, did a remote broadcast. Or was it NBC? Monster trucks roamed the infield. At one point, chickens were released, just before the human sacrifice. Everyone was required to chug rum.

This year, a bicoastal broadcast package requires an odd configuration to the eight Sunshine Millions events. As a result, the day will not climax, as it should, with the $1 million Classic at Gulfstream, featuring Delightful Kiss and a crowd of opportunists who may never have a million-dollar purse come their way again. Instead, the Millions program will be anchored by the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff, at 1 1/16 miles over Santa Anita's synthetic main track.

Leah's Secret, winner of three stakes in 2008 and second to Ginger Punch in the Louisville Handicap, deserves top billing in the Distaff this time around, and Steve Specht agrees.

"She runs hard every time, on all kinds of tracks and all over the place against good horses," Specht said in admiration. "She sure looks like the class of the race."

Specht will be trying to upset the Distaff with Lady Railrider, a daughter of Ride the Rails (sire of Candy Ride), who has journeyed from Golden Gate packing high hopes and solid form.

"She shipped perfect, trained good, and has been eating everything since she got here," Specht said Thursday from Santa Anita, where his filly was bedded down. "Hopefully, if she keeps it together between now and Saturday I think she'll run a good race. I'm not making any bold predictions, but she is pretty sharp right now."

Lady Railrider was bred and races for Larry and Marianne Williams, who raised her on their farm near Parma, Idaho. Don't be alarmed by those two early Boise lines in her past performances. They were just warm-ups. Specht got her at Golden Gate during the summer of 2007, and she's been steady as a rock since then, finishing first or second in seven of 10 Northern California starts.

"I turned her out last February because of a quarter crack," Specht said. "She'd run with it a couple times. Sometimes they'll hold and grow out, but in her case it got up in her coronet band. It was like running with a blister on your foot. The crack itself won't break them down, but sometimes they start protecting it, then other things go bad."

With a freshly grown foot, Lady Railrider should be 3 for 3 on the comeback trail. She was nearly knocked down in her first race back and still got up to be second. In her next race she finished in a dead heat for the win, then took the Pacific Heights Handicap easily on Dec. 6.

"She'll run as good as she can," Specht said. "The one thing I'm hoping for is that my horse is fresh, while maybe some of these other horses have been knocking heads for the last year."

Don't put it past him. Specht shocked the 2007 running of the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream with 7-year-old McCann's Mojave, at odds of 33-1, and he flew across the country to get the job done.

"I wouldn't have gone all that way if I didn't think that horse at least had a shot," Specht said. "He was just getting better and better at the time, and when that happens, that's the time to take a chance."

The McCann's Mojave saga continued for another year and a half, well into his 8-year-old campaign, with a couple more stakes wins and a noble fourth in the Hollywood Gold Cup, behind Heatseeker and Go Between. The end of the line came last August on the day McCann's Mojave was supposed to run in the Pacific Classic, when Specht detected a small bump on a tendon before a routine gallop.

"He probably could have run with no problem," Specht said. "But there's always that little bit of doubt in your mind. I would have hated to have that horse's career end being pulled up on the track."

McCann's Mojave, owned by Santa Anita's publicity director, Mike Willman, was retired to stand at stud at Rancho San Miguel, just north of Paso Robles near California's Highway 101.

"In this day and age, there's so many horses who don't even make it through their 3-year-old year," Specht said. "Here's a horse who was 8 years old and still running well in quality races. Hopefully he can pass that off to some of his offspring."

Specht, among Northern California's most respected horsemen, became a local hero winning that '07 Classic. Unless your name is Jerry Hollendorfer or Greg Gilchrist, those opportunities don't come along very often for Bay Area stables.

"We were kidding around the other day, and somebody asked if I was running in another million-dollar race," Specht said with a self-effacing laugh. "Naw, I said. This one's only $500,000."