Mention horse racing people at the Alameda County Fair over the last 20 years and a few names come straight to the front of the list.
There's Allen Aldrich, a Pleasanton-raised horse owner and Alameda County Fair board member. Add Jeff Bonde, a Pleasanton-raised trainer that owned the fair winner's circle for years. Finally, the one that flies the most under the radar, but can stand toe-to-toe with anyone that would make the list -- another longtime Pleasanton resident, George Schmitt.
Schmitt, now 78 years old, and his wife Clare (76) have been as prominent and influential race horse owners locally as anyone in the last 20 years.
It was 21 years ago Schmitt was introduced to the sport.
"I got involved because I was drunk," said Schmitt, never one to pull a punch or not speak his feelings. "We had a place at Incline Village, and we had a benefit for St. Mary's, when one of the guys asked if I had any good bourbon. Phil Lebherz (a horse owner/breeder) was one of them and I asked him what he did for fun, and he mentioned horse racing. I asked him if he needed a partner and he said, yes."
After initially not jumping on a $400,000 purchase proposal for a horse, Schmitt got into the game a couple of weeks later with a $40,000 purchase on a pair of horses that included filly Sierra Babe.
And the legacy was born.
"I went to Bay Meadows to see (Sierra Babe) run her first race, and she won going wire-to-wire," Schmitt said. "When she won that race, I was hooked."
Schmitt, who was involved in the telecom industry for over 40 years and in 2021 was inducted into the Wireless Hall of Fame, has gone on to either outright own or have a stake of ownership in over 300 horses. Some have seen high levels of success, while others were just ones he adored regardless of their success.
According to Equibase, a horse racing statistical company, the Schmitts have started 755 horses, winning 95 times, finishing second 99 times and running third 90 times. Their horses have earned $2,181,265 in purse money.
Here are the top five favorite horses for Schmitt, and it is an impressive list:
* Cambina: A smallish horse that was brought over from Ireland, this was one tough runner that at one point won four stakes over six starts, including the Grade I American Oaks at Hollywood Park in 2011. Ran in the 2011 Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf, finishing ninth.
* Frumious: One of the most beautiful horses Schmitt has owned, Frumious won the Palos Verde Stakes at Santa Anita in 2012, as well as five other races in 16 career starts.
* Sierra Sunset: Arguably the best horse Schmitt has had a piece of, as he was one of three owners. In 2008 he won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and was headed towards a berth in the Kentucky Derby until suffering a hairline fracture. Recovered from the injury over a year later, he came back in 2009 to win the Alamedan Handicap in Pleasanton in his next-to-last race.
* Sierra Sweetie: Could have turned out to be the best horse Schmitt had after the filly came out and went 3-for-5 as a 2-year-old and was named the California-bred-2-year-old filly of the year. Won her first start of her 3-year-old campaign, but then suffered a disease that ended her racing career. Won $316,400 in her short career.
* Izzy Rules: A favorite of the Pleasanton racing fans; Izzy won the Juan Gonzalez Memorial in Pleasanton in 2009. The favorite was Washington Bridge, a horse that the owner bet $100,000 on his horse to show in the final moments before the race. When Washington Bridge ran fourth, Izzy paid $5.60 to win, but $24.80 to show. So many fans stormed into the winner's circle for the photo that it had to be moved on to the main track. Also, won the Grade II Las Flores Stakes at Santa Anita in 2012.
While he has seen success at multiple tracks, in the end, it's all about Pleasanton and the Alameda County Fair.
"Going to Pleasanton is like a breath of fresh air," Schmitt said.
There have certainly been some amazing days for the Schmitt stable over the years at Pleasanton but then there was last year.
"Clare and I were 0-19 last year in Pleasanton," he said, with a laugh. "We couldn't win one race."
The couple are planning on this year being much different.
Schmitt has 27 horses stabled in the Pleasanton barns right now and is feeling much better about his chances.
"This year we are expecting to win five to 10 races," Schmitt said.
With the Pleasanton stables opened for the fair season, that means Schmitt will be a regular in the early-morning workouts. Back when Pleasanton was a year-round training facility, Schmitt was a fixture on the track apron, always watching his horses.
"I love going down there and watching the horses in the morning," Schmitt said.
He always has been quick to have a conversation with anyone that walked up and asked about his horses. And he always offers advice for potential owners.
"I would encourage anyone that is an owner to not be afraid of their horses," Schmitt said. "Run your hands over your horses -- get to know them. You can tell when something is wrong."
Schmitt has always been a huge horse advocate and one of the most dedicated owners when it comes to taking exceptional care of his horses.
He previously owned the fabled Ponderosa Ranch in Tahoe where he cared for his horses, whether they were still racing or had been retired.
A couple of years back he sold the property and, in the deal, came a 44-acre ranch in Gardnerville, Nev., where he keeps his horses when they are not racing or after they have retired.
"It's as nice as any facility in Kentucky," Schmitt said proudly.
As good of people as the Schmitts are when it comes to taking care of horses, it makes it that much tougher to digest when the ugly side of the sport rears its head.
Schmitt cringes when talking about the state of despair horse racing has gone through, dealing with trainer violations for doping horses or running them when they are not sound.
"The last few years have been really hard," Schmitt said about the direction horse racing has been going. "I know some trainers that are getting away with cheating and have not been caught yet."
While Schmitt has seen struggles with racing the last few years, he thinks the sport may be finally heading in the right direction. The banning of certain medications, along with the development of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), are big steps in the right direction.
HISA was signed into federal law in 2020 and takes effect beginning July 1. HISA is responsible for drafting and enforcing uniform safety and integrity rules in thoroughbred racing in the U.S. Overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, HISA was created to implement, for the first time, a national, uniform set of rules applicable to every thoroughbred racing participant and racetrack facility.
"Getting rid of anabolic steroids was one of the best things that has ever happened to horse racing," Schmitt said. "As much as I hate to see the government get in the middle of things, this is going to help."
Schmitt has a pair of trainers tending to his stable in Marcia Stortz and Quentin Miller. Stortz appreciates all Schmitt brings to the table.
"He definitely makes sure all his horses are taken care of," said Stortz, who has been training since 2015. "I think it's great that he knows all his horses. He knows what he is breeding his horses for -- speed to win on the front end."
Stortz also pointed out that Schmitt has recently taken on the breaking of his 2-year-olds at the ranch in Gardnerville, something unique to individual owners.
"He has helped bring us some 2-year-olds and that is good for his business," Stortz explained.
Stortz is fully understanding of the pressure trainers face to win, as horse racing training is largely a "what have you done for me lately" business.
And when it comes to running in Schmitt's hometown?
"I feel pressure all the time to win," Stortz said. "But I feel happier when we win at Pleasanton. I think it's particularly special for George to win at Pleasanton -- it's better than anywhere else."
Schmitt didn't hesitate to agree.
"We want to get a lot of people out there for those photos," Schmitt said.
It's been a couple of years, but the horse racing meet is back in full force in conjunction with the Alameda County Fair.
The fair is set to run from today to July 10, with horse racing taking place Fridays through Sundays of each week, with racing also taking place on Monday, July 4.
The fair is closed Monday and Tuesday of each week, once again except Independence Day. There are 13 days of racing this year, with the post time set for 1:45 p.m. each day.
The free Daily Handicapping Seminars are set for noon each day at the stage located right outside the grandstand. Local handicapper Dennis Miller and race caller Craig Braddick are set to co-host the seminars again.
There are three stakes races this year. The She's A Tiger is set for June 25, the Oak Tree Sprint on July 2 and the Everett Nevin will run on July 9.
There will be a Brew Fest this Saturday (June 18) and a Wine Fest on July 2. Both events will run from 2-5 p.m. in the Grandstand area.
This year it will be a Digital Grandstand where customers will be using credit cards or mobile devices to pay for food and beverages. Pre-order your tickets and parking passes online.
Seating options include Trackside Terrace Patio Dining, Sky Lounge at the Track, Season Box Seat Holder. Access to the Grandstand area is free with a general admission ticket to the fair.
For more information or to purchase tickets, go to www.alamedacountyfair.com.
Dennis Miller offers his selections for the fair race slate on opening day, June 17. You can read his picks each day of racing at www.acesgolf.com.
First race (1:45 p.m.)
Picks: Orczy, Sierra Melody, Earnest
Analysis: Pleasanton is known for being a speed figuring track, but with the high forecast for 68 today, the speed does not necessarily hold as well as a warm day. Orcyz was second and first last year under similar weather conditions. He did have Pedro Terrero last year when the jockey was on a roll, now gets Irving Orozco who has teamed with trainer Reid France to win at a 26 percent clip. Sierra Melody will be out quick here and has hit the board 9-of-16 times on the dirt. But, only has one win in the 16 starts on dirt. Has four career starts in Pleasanton, with a second and a third. Earnest has found success on the dirt, hitting the board 5-of-8 times. There is one start in Pleasanton on the resume, but he finished off the board. Will sit right off the pace and hope to get first run when then turn for home. Terrero will hope to have a run like he did last year in Pleasanton when he led the colony in wins with 13.
Second race (2:15 p.m.)
Picks: Not by Might, Gator Shining, Ayrton Senna
Analysis: This a spot where I am trusting the barn. Jonathan Wong has the top barn in Northern California and warrants some respect here. Not by Might debuted September 18, 2021, went out and wired the field in a tougher spot than this. As impressive as that was, the horse went right on the bench before making his second start today. The works to me shows that the horse is ready to go again. The morning line says 9/2, but I think he will go off at a lower price. Gator Shining has certainly seen better races than others in this spot and on paper seems the one to beat, but 1-for-13 makes me question if the horse likes to win races. Will be the favorite, so you must ask yourself if it is worth the risk at the low price. Could very easily win the race, but I try to beat him. Ayrton Senna is another where I will trust the barn. Came out in October in his debut and got a win, but then has not been seen in a race since. Trainer Steve Specht is very solid bringing horses back after extended breaks and if he is ready, is indeed right in the mix.
Third race (2:45 p.m.)
Picks: Pivotal Fever, Dr. Hoffman, Perseverance.
Analysis: Pivotal Fever has one start on dirt -- it was here -- and won the race. It is the only win in six starts, but he went wire-to-wire, the style for success here. At morning line odds of 8/1, this is a great value play. Dr. Hoffman is your morning line favorite, but I found enough to make me look elsewhere. For starters, has one win in 10 starts. And while that did come in an impressive maiden score at Santa Anita, he has gone from an $25,000 optional claimer at Santa Anita to a $4,000 claimer at Golden Gate Fields in September of 2021. And the horse went to the bench following that start. The barn is decent bringing horses back from that kind of break, and the works have been decent for the return, but this horse screams of needing a race. This might be one to watch as this meet goes on. Perseverance prefers the dirt with a win and two seconds in five career starts. This is the second start off a break which is usually a good sign, but the barn has not won a race this year with this length of a break.
Fourth race (3:15 p.m.)
Picks: Remember Sue, Aliso Beach, Ball Lass
Analysis: Not always in favor of going with the morning line favorite but will do that here. Remember Sue has hit the board 6-of-8 starts this year, but all eight have been on synthetic or turf. When you have a Wong horse ridden by Evin Roman, it is a duo that is winning at 25 percent. Has speed, but does not need the lead, perfect for a route race here. The key for Aliso Beach is to stay out of trouble, something the horse has struggled with recently. The horse has bumped in her last two starts and has not been able to rally. Has seen some pretty good races and this spot will be one of her softest spots, so no trouble may mean a good finish. Ball Lass has hit the board in 2-of-3 this year and didn't break her maiden until seventh career start. Has been off since March 19, but the barn brings a solid ROI off a break.
Fifth race (3:45 p.m.)
Picks: My Man Biggie, Doge of Venice, Knockout Guy.
Analysis: My Man Biggie is the type of horse than can go one way or the other. He has two starts at Santa Anita and both were much tougher races than this spot. Here's the kicker -- he did nothing in either start, so were they just too tough or does the horse just have nothing. On the positive sign the switch in barns is a step up as Wong hits at 24 percent when having a horse start for the first time in his barn. He either wins this for fun or finishes off the board. Doge of Venice has the best last start of this group, running second May 22 at Golden Gate Fields. Dropped after a fourth in his debut and takes another drop after the second. Every reason to expect a big run here. Knockout Guy brings similar credentials to My Man Biggie, having done nothing in two starts for a low percentage barn in Southern California and now moved to the top barn in the north. Brayan Pena usually gets the call from, and he has my pick in this race.
Sixth race (4:15 p.m.)
Picks: Empire House, Tip Top Gal, Lagatha.
Analysis: I am riding the Wong train today so it will either be feast or famine. Empire House is coming off a pair of route races and now drops back to a sprint, something where Wong his at 18 percent. In the last two -- both on the turf -- she was shown speed in both before getting run down from behind. Now you get five furlongs, a bullet work showing she is ready, and the same type of speed should produce a win here. You get 6/1 when the betting starts, but I am thinking 2/1 or 5/2 by post time. Tip Top Gal got buried in a stakes race two back over the turf at Golden Gate, but was much better the next start running third, pressing the pace. Any horse out of the George and Clare Schmitt barn is trained for speed so this one will be either on or pushing the pace. Lagatha has shown speed the last four starts and has a win and two seconds in the last three starts. But has she has not started on the dirt and will not get an easy lead.
Seventh race (4:45 p.m.)
Picks: She's All Attitude, Stormy Sierra, Engee Ombee
Analysis: At a maiden $8,000 claimer, this might be one of the cheaper races of the day, but it also might be the easiest to pick. She's All Attitude has had one start, blistered out of the gate and led until late where she gave way and finished fourth. Now it is the second start on a track where speed holds and sets up for a big one. All the Sierra horses are bred for speed so Stormy Sierra fits right up there in this field. Has not won in five starts, but the Sierra horses are also bred for dirt running. Will be a factor right out of the gate. Engee Ombee did beat She's All Attitude but didn't pass the horse until late and was second at every call. Thinking the speed holds today, I can't see her getting the better of it here. Has three seconds in five starts, but none have come on dirt.