By nature, he's a bird trainer. But he's no chicken.
Ever since the horse he trains, Kentucky Bear, officially entered the Preakness, Reade Baker has had the same answer to the question he's asked most often: How are you going to beat Big Brown, who hasn't lost a race yet? "He hasn't raced against us yet," Baker deadpans. He repeated the line for a national audience at ESPN Zone late yesterday afternoon, moments after Kentucky Bear got post position 8 at the Preakness draw.
As everybody found out later, Kentucky Bear is next to Big Brown at No. 7 on Saturday. Big Brown's opening odds were 1-2; none of the others is better than 8-1, with six of them at 30-1. Kentucky Bear is in the middle at 15-1. In other words, Big Brown is supposed to go past everybody, regardless of his trainer's big talk, as if he's standing still.
Big whoop appears to be Baker's attitude. "We're going to go to the Preakness, we're going to have fun," he said, and added, without pause, "and we're going to win."
The relaxed, jocular and borderline cocky attitude - while several furlongs short of the bluster Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow serves up regularly - is a natural fit for Baker, who turned 61 two weeks ago. He comes off as someone who won't lose a wink of sleep if Kentucky Bear fails, or even fails miserably. He does this because, he said, "I'm a sportsman.
"If you're a sportsman, if you lose, you come back and try again another day," he said. "This isn't a game of finance, it isn't a game of X number of dollars. This is a game of sportsmen - that's what we're supposed to be."
That's why Baker likes describing himself not as a horse trainer, but as "an animal trainer." And the other animals he trains are birds. Not to fight, let's be crystal clear about that. And not to eat. To show and to compete, chickens, roosters and ducks, in their version of Westminster. Baker has won numerous national championships in his native Canada over the decades.
Sounds unusual, doesn't it, a guy buying and breeding and grooming Rhode Island reds and grey mallards running a thoroughbred in a Triple Crown race?
"I'm an animal person," Baker said. "I love animals. Horses or birds, no difference." He has worked with both his entire life, ever since he was a child on his family farm near Toronto. He officially got into the horse business in 1965 and has performed every task imaginable, from being a groom to a practice rider to a trainer to an agent to a writer.
Baker's complete immersion not just in handling horses but all animals under his care cultivated a desire to put their care first. Not that he would imply that his fellow trainers don't do the same. If he is at odds with anyone in the racing industry as it stands today, it's with ... well, with the entire industry. For example, he is fully aware that if Kentucky Bear pulls off the impossible Saturday, he's almost a sure thing to run the Belmont three weeks later, because that's what the owners will want.
It just isn't necessarily what Baker thinks is right. A month between Triple Crown races makes more sense, he said. A horse can handle the breaks of two, then three, weeks, but don't necessarily expect him to win. The lineup for Saturday pretty much proves that, with only Big Brown and Gayego entered from the Kentucky Derby. Kentucky Bear, Baker figured, didn't need to make all three races.
But common sense doesn't determine that, nor do true horse people - or animal people. Money has determined that. But Baker said, "I don't think you do this if you love money. If you love money, go to the bank."
Yet he added later: "That's what our generation [of horsemen] have become. We've gone from a Paul Mellon to a Frank Stronach."
Ouch. Talk about biting the hand that's going to feed you in just three days. Of course, he did describe the Magna CEO as "a man who will fire you in a heartbeat" just two days after news broke of Stronach's readying to give yet another head of the Maryland Jockey Club the boot.
One can only hope that Big Brown's other competitors share more of Baker's outlook on Saturday's events. "Winning is winning," he said. "If we get out there on the track that day and we beat them, then that's great."
If not, there's always another bird show.
Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).