Winning Counts

By Dan Arrigo
When I became involved in Thoroughbred racing in the 1950s, it was a sport of numbers. Now, it seems to be more of a business of numbers than a sport, but most racing fans still spend more time looking at the figures on a tote board--or on TVG--than they do admiring colorful silks or counting horse's legs in the post parade.

You would think that in a sport/business largely subsidized by gambling, and one in which a spectator's enjoyment of a day at the races is primarily measured by the tote ticket payoff, that winning races would be one of the ultimate measures of greatness, fame, or respect for trainers...just as it is for jockeys. This is apparently not so based on an elitist attitude by Racing Hall of Fame voters.

Trainers in the Hall of Fame are each deserving of the honor. They paid their dues, and won large numbers of races with horses that helped make them worthy of such an honor. Many of the living Hall of Fame trainers are my friends, acquaintances, or customers, and there is not one who doesn't deserve to have his plaque up in the Hall.

Shug McGaughey, Sonny Hine, Buddy Delp, Richard Mandella, and Neil Drysdale are the most recent trainers voted into the Hall of Fame. At the time of their respective inductions, these trainers had won a total of 8,576 races.

On Nov. 5, Dale Baird won his 9,000th race, the most ever won by any trainer, worldwide. He leads his friend Jack Van Berg, number two on the list and a 1985 Hall of Fame inductee, by more than 2,600 wins. And yet, Dale Baird is not in racing's Hall of Fame.

Evaluating his career objectively rather than subjectively, and on merit rather than politics, in addition to 9,000 wins, Baird:

* has led the nation in wins 15 times;

* was the first trainer to win 300 races in a year;

* won every training title at Mountaineer Park, his home base for 20 years;

* is cited in the Guiness Book of World Records;

* has a career win ratio of nearly 17%;

* is in the HBPA Hall of Fame; and

* has been the country's leading owner 17 times.

As has every other horseman of note, Baird has paid his dues. His career started as a jockey on the county fair circuit, an ambition ended by rising weight and a hitch in the Army. As a trainer he won his first race, a $1,250 claimer, Aug. 18, 1961, at Ellis Park with a horse ironically named New York (ironic because Baird has spent nearly his entire career racing at hinterland tracks such as Waterford Park--now Mountaineer Race Track--which is as far removed from New York as Funny Cide is from a career at stud). In 1962, his first full year as a trainer, he won 23 of 182 starts and his career was off and running. He scored a career high 349 wins in 1981.

What sets Baird apart from other trainers in the Hall is the fact he owned nearly all his horses, with no outside financial backing. He started with a $500 horse and has continued to acquire stock privately, through paddock sales or auctions. Rarely will Baird claim a horse. "If a horse is running here (at Mountaineer) I pretty much know what he can do. The challenge is buying a horse elsewhere and trying to develop him into a winner here," he has said. His stable regularly consists of up to 90 horses, with turnover of about 250 horses a year. He is a hands-on trainer, arriving at the track early and leaving late. He has had the same assistant, Penny Mathias, for 20 years, and his wife, Diane, is helpful. But the risk is all Baird's. It is not spread among investor/owners looking for tax write-offs or adventure. Since 1961 his horses have earned enough for him to pay his feed man on time, as well as every other vendor who has dealt with Baird.

And Baird has given back to the sport, serving as a multi-team president of the local HBPA during the crucial period that resulted in casino gambling and escalated purse money at Mountaineer.

It was big news when Laffit Pincay chased and eventually broke Bill Shoemaker's all-time wins record. When Dale Baird won his 9,000th race the accomplishment received mention in trade publications and elsewhere, but it is time, long overdue, to put Dale Baird in the Hall of Fame.

DAN ARRIGO is a licensed trainer who also operates horse auctions in the Chicago area.