'Big asset' Baker to hit finish line a clear favorite


Want a quiet moment with Tommy Baker at his Laurel Park office?

Forget it.

If it's not a trainer barging in for candy out of the glass jars on Baker's desk, then it's a trainer with a smile asking for stalls at Pimlico. If it's not a caller asking Baker to fax the latest stakes nominations, then it's a red-cheeked horse owner wishing Baker the best.

After a half century in the horse industry, Baker is retiring as the Maryland Jockey Club's racing secretary. From jockey to trainer to official, Baker has progressed through the ranks with unwavering grace and decency.

"There's not a more likable guy in the world than Tommy Baker," said Donald Barr, a Laurel trainer and a director of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "He's always got a smile. He's never been overbearing.

"We're losing a big asset here. He's basically the main person in racing. The personality of the racing secretary reflects on the whole horse industry."

Since early 1993, when Larry Abbundi retired as racing secretary at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, Baker has been responsible for scheduling the races that make up each day's racing program.

He has written the conditions, such as this for Thanksgiving's ninth race: 3 years old and upward that have never won two races other than maiden, claiming, starter or hunt meet.

He also has assigned stalls at Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center, assigned weights for handicap races, and has overseen the taking of entries for the races he has written.

Staffing telephones outside Baker's office, nearly a dozen often-frantic workers compiled entries as earnestly as plant operators trying to control a nuclear meltdown.

His was not an easy job. But Baker embraced it. Asked the favorite part of his job, Baker said: "Dealing with the horsemen on a daily basis." The least favorite? "I can't really think of one."

Baker got along with the horsemen so well, because he was one. After returning in 1953 from the Korean War, in which he served in an Army tank corps, Baker found work with the trainer Bernie Bond. He eventually became Bond's assistant and then struck out on his own, training as many as 30 horses at a time.

In 1972, he accepted a job in the racing office, and in 1978 became Abbundi's assistant.

Before the war, Baker rode as a jockey, winning his first race in 1947 at Havre de Grace. He was 18. One winner's circle photo hangs on a wall in Baker's office: his Havre de Grace victory aboard Bungalese on July 16, 1948. Such photos are rare, Baker said, because he won only about 20 races in four years.

Baker, 70, plans to travel with his wife, Betty, and see more of their grandchildren. But in the short term, he has been monitoring the weather. And it's looking good for golf tomorrow.

Baker's departure will mean in the short term that others in the department, in particular Lenny Hale, vice president of racing, will assume duties of the racing secretary, said Joe De Francis, the Maryland Jockey Club's president and chief executive. A long-term solution will come later, he said.

Colonial woes

The company that owns Colonial Downs plans to sell the southern-Virginia track and its four off-track betting parlors, company executives say.

De Francis said that if they're serious, then he's serious about wanting to buy it.

However, some in Maryland believe Jeffrey Jacobs, the track's CEO, is not serious and that he has threatened sale or closure to garner concessions from the state's horsemen and the Virginia Racing Commission.

The track has lost money since its 1997 opening. It lost $5.3 million in fiscal 1998 and probably will lose about $1.2 million this year, the company estimates. Track president Ian Stewart said it could lose as much as $2.7 million in 2000.

Colonial Downs has asked for more than $500,000 in concessions and purse subsidies from Virginia thoroughbred horsemen and about $300,000 from the racing commission's 1999 budget surplus. It also wants relief from a requirement that it offer 150 live days of racing by 2002.

The Maryland Jockey Club already manages Colonial Downs and its OTB facilities as part of a deal to stave off bankruptcy. Under the direction of John Mooney, MJC management limited the losses.

But recently, the track's attempt to open an OTB parlor and steeplechase track in populous northern Virginia was rejected by local officials -- a blow that could prove decisive.

Et cetera

Lonesome Glory, the all-time steeplechase money-earner, was withdrawn from today's Colonial Cup in Camden, S.C., after suffering a minor tendon injury and has been retired. The 11-year-old gelding earned $1.3 million and four Eclipse awards as North America's outstanding jumper. He was trained by Bruce Miller at his Cochranville, Pa., farm and ridden by Miller's daughter, Blythe.

Edgar Prado, who won four races Thursday at Aqueduct, plans to ride at the New York track through Thanksgiving and to transfer his tack next month to Calder Race Course in Miami. When Gulfstream Park opens in January in Hallandale, Fla., Prado plans to be there. Daylami, winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf two weeks ago, has been named Horse of the Year in Europe. Even though the race at Gulfstream Park was his only one in 1999 on this continent, Daylami will receive support for Horse of the Year in North America.

Travis Dunkelberger won at Charles Town last weekend with his first mount since suffering severe injuries in a July spill at Laurel Park. The New York Racing Association plans a memorial service for Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt at 11 a.m. Dec. 6 at Aqueduct. Vanderbilt died Nov. 12.

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