In the thin light of a January dawn with snow on its breath, the cattle truck crunches its way up the icy ruts to a red barn set starkly on a West Virginia hillcrest. When it pulls up outside, half a dozen men dressed for winter in the Gulag swarm around it. The rear doors are opened, the ramp comes down. Before the driver can jump from the cab, the first item of cargo is unloaded: a sleepy thoroughbred. Three more horses follow. In less time than seems possible, all four are hitched to the arms of a mechanical hot walker.
That's just the short-term parking lot, though; their accommodations will be ready very shortly. Check-out time at Baird Farm is 7 a.m. and the management is strict. Even now four other horses, having vacated their warm stalls for the newcomers, are being led out of the barn and loaded into the truck. In a moment the truck will be carrying them downhill on its eight-mile return trip to Waterford Park, situated in the thin corridor of West Virginia that runs between Pennsylvania and the Ohio River. Come the afternoon, they will be racing on the track there. The new arrivals at the barn were yesterday's runners, now home again to enjoy some R and R.
The driver slams the door. Cowboy-booted and hatted, he wears the crooked, charming, self-deprecating grin of a Jimmy Stewart. His name is Dale Baird and, as anybody in West Virginia racing will tell you, he was last year's winningest owner and trainer in America.
The winningest? What about that guy out in California, Laz Barrera, who had Affirmed? Well, that's a matter of semantics. Barrera is just good at winning money—a healthy $3,563,147 in 1979. Dale Baird wins races. Last year he trained 317 winners, 50 more than his nearest rival, Southern Illinois' Everett Hammond, 220 more than the great Barrera and Spectacular Bid's trainer, Bud Delp, who each had 97. What's more, last year was the third time in that decade that he won the title; he was also top man in '71 and '73. The last time anyone achieved an owner-trainer double was way back in 1949—a man named Hal Bishop did it then.
All 317 of Baird's winners, be it noted, crossed the wire at Waterford Park. As a track it lacks the tone, perhaps, of Santa Anita or Hialeah. It also lacks the purses. It is a pleasant, pretty racecourse, a green oasis among the scarred steel towns of the district, but it mostly features claiming races, often for as little as $1,500. Last year the total earnings of Baird's horses came to $556,127, and he raced 295 days. In the Hollywood Gold Cup last June, it took Affirmed less than two minutes to win almost half that amount—$275,000.
It is easy, therefore, to put down Baird's achievement, but that would be an injustice. Organizing an ever-changing string of more than 100 horses—he sells and buys about 200 horses each year and maybe no more than 20 stay with him for the whole period—is a formidable and complex operation that must command respect. If Baird has no connection with the Porsches and Lamborghinis of the horse world, then he is certainly its Henry Ford, churning out its Model Ts. As far as output goes, he has everybody licked. And he is always there to lend a hand on the production line.
It is a fair bet that no one ever saw Laz Barrera drive a horse van. Or not for a very long time. This very frosty morning, though, as every morning except Mondays (there being no Sunday racing at Waterford Park), Baird is working the shuttle service he runs between his barn at the track and his farm at Newell, where he lives in a trailer, his house having burned down eight years ago. The cattle truck he uses can take 11 horses roped nose-to-tail, and he sometimes needs that capacity with, let's say, somewhat more than the permissible maximum of 18 horses at the track, 45 more at Newell and around 40 at another farm at Martinsville, Ill. The logistics are daunting.
And so is the pace he keeps up. Seven days a week he is at his track barn at the horseman's hour of 6 a.m. and, since for the better part of the year there is night racing at Waterford Park, he might not be in bed until 1 a.m.
Even so, there was no sign of wear and tear to be noted when, an hour before shuttle time, he had got down to morning feed at the track. Looking younger than his 44 years, he announced, "First we feed, then we eat!" At this stage of the day his only assistant is Nancy Brezinsky, one of those small, wiry girls that you see working with horses on every track in America. Between them, operating as if a time-and-motion expert had laid down every move, they take care of more than 25 horses in six minutes flat from a wheelbarrow of sweet feed and oats.
That leaves little time for the niceties with the animals, which are identified by names written on their halters in Magic Marker; with a turnover like Baird's, remembering which is which can be tough. But he does pause before a dark bay named Little Chuck. "That's our big one," he says, an unusual note of pride in his voice.
One can only respond with a polite inquiry.
"Sure," says Baird, "Spectacular Bid and them won a lot of races last year, but they didn't win 12! This is the winningest horse in America!"
Well, yes indeed, Little Chuck, an 8-year-old gelding, won a dozen races in '79, so tying for first place—numerically—with a horse called American Moon, which ran at Penn National in Harrisburg. Little Chuck's earnings came to $18,000.
By 6:10 a.m. Baird and Brezinsky are in the track kitchen to breakfast with the rest of the crew, 11 of them all told. The kidding is heavy, sharp but friendly, and an outsider has the feeling of intruding on a well-established TV sitcom. Brezinsky, who used to be an overseas operator on the Pittsburgh telephone exchange, bears the early brunt by insisting that in spite of her surname she is Irish. "An Irish setter," somebody guffaws. "Always settin' around!" She puts her face into a can of Mello Yello, the improbable breakfast she has chosen.
It is plain that his crew holds Baird in no particular awe. "What would we get for you by the ounce, Mac?" the boss sniggers when the price of gold comes up as a topic.
Mac, one of the hot walkers, is not amused. "I don't want to hear you this morning," he tells Baird coldly. But when the upcoming Super Bowl is mentioned—Pittsburgh is only 47 miles down the road—he offers the chief a sporting bet of nine kicks in the butt to one on the Steelers.
Then it is back to serious matters. Baird's 18-year-old son, Perry, is to set out that morning from Illinois with a van-load of horses his father bought over the phone from a man in Denver. He's been having trouble loading one particular mare. "I told him," Baird informs the company, "practice loading that mare seven times. Then she'll go." He seems worried about the long trip, though.
Without a signal, the crew gets up and heads for the barn. Within seconds they are working as intensively and as fast as a Ferrari pit crew changing a wheel at a Grand Prix. By the time that Baird takes off in the van, the production line is in full swing. When he returns, though, he is not above grabbing a rake and helping to clear out old straw.
Then he is holding the head of a claimer called Leon's Delight while Jim Phillips, the blacksmith, shoes him. Meanwhile, the crew is shifting horses in and out of the stalls like a harried Manhattan apartment-house doorman switching around parked cars. As soon as an exercise boy comes in from galloping, a new horse is waiting for him and he is sliding off, grabbing his saddle and remounting while his previous ride is passed to a hot walker. One exercise rider says, "This horse is so sore, his ears hurt." At one point, Baird himself has three horses in hand. But somehow or other it all works out, and it works out fast. A little later on, Brezinsky says, "You do a lot of things in this crew. Rake out the shed-row, tack up horses, bandage 'em, cool 'em out, pony the horses, gallop 'em. Sometimes you get to drive the truck."
With his turnover of horses, his constant claiming, buying and selling, it would seem that Baird works to a long-term plan, but he denies this. He can only operate, he says, on a day-to-day basis, pragmatically, with little in the way of an overall strategy. But the seemingly patchwork approach works.
"If you don't know what you are doing in this game," a friend of his had said earlier, "they can break you quick. But Dale has the eye."
Later in the day, in a rare moment of quiet, Baird said, "O.K., this is the cheapest racetrack in the country. A horse comes here when he has no place else to go. So people call me up from all over the country. The art lies in knowing what to buy."
One of the most important hours of his day, usually in the evening, is spent studying the Waterford Park condition book, which lists requirements for entries in future races. For example, one such might call for 4-year-olds that had not won in three races over a mile in the past six months. So what Baird might look for in his stock, or acquire for the purpose, is a horse that has been narrowly beaten at the distance or has won over a shorter trip. Or maybe one that shows promise but might have a minor injury that he thinks can be fixed.
"The art is in buying a horse with the right qualifications. There's no sense in buying one that's a bargain, well worth the money, if he doesn't fit in with this track.
"You also have to remember that most horses you buy at this level have problems, and you have to figure which ones can run with their problems. Ankle problems, knee problems. Some are worse than others. You have to be able to tell. When you come down to it, most horses that can run have some kind of trouble; they aren't wholly sound."
It follows from this, of course, that Baird relies heavily on phenylbutazone, or Bute, the anti-inflammatory and thus pain-killing drug that is widely under attack nationally as well as in West Virginia, where the state legislature is considering whether it should be banned from the tracks. Says Baird, "People who knock Bute don't know as much about it as they think they do. It helps a horse heal, as well as taking the pain away. Now, though, you have to run a horse for a much longer period of time, and Bute keeps 'em sounder. Heck, more humans take it than horses."
Later that day a horseman came up to Baird waving, with visible outrage, a bill for feed he had just received. "Yeah," said Baird, "I just did my taxes this week. I paid out $111,000 for feed in '79. Feed bills nearly doubled over three years. Once I never raced in the winter, but now I have to go the whole year because of inflation." Going the whole year clearly means more pressure on the stock, more reliance on Bute.
At Waterford Park, however, Baird is admired by many for foreseeing inflation. Robert Graham, the executive vice-president of Ogden Corp., which owns the track, says Baird would have been successful in any business he took up. "Look at the way he's coped with the price bulge. He has his own farms, his own transportation, makes bulk purchases of feed."
A businessman, indeed, is all Dale Baird claims to be. "I don't look for a big horse," he says. "It would be a million to one. I'm not interested in breeding or raising horses. It's a business. If a horse can run, that's all I ask for."
It sounds a simple enough system. So why is he so far out in front of his chosen, limited field? His answer is simple also. "You have to go out and work every day. And most people don't."
His is the work ethic that built the worn-out steel towns you drive through on the way to the track. He did admit, though, that the actual buying of horses gave him fresh pleasure each day, that for him, the archetypal horse trader, each day was different.
That afternoon the prospect of a deal with some horsemen from Louisiana suddenly developed. So it was left to Brezinsky to study the overnight card. "Only three in for tomorrow," she muttered. "That ain't gonna make him happy."
Well, it would slow him up a little, perhaps. But in the ninth race of the afternoon, Senator Baffler, one of the horses he had vanned down to Waterford that morning, won for him, pushing his January victory total up to 11. He wound up with 24 wins for the month. Not bad. January, as he had noted earlier, is a slow month anyway. And The Old Farmers' Almanac had forecast that the rest of the winter would be mild, which meant more racing days than normal to come.
Indeed, an additional forecast might have been in order. Barring accidents, it looks remarkably likely that Dale Baird will still be holding on to that title of his at the end of 1980.