Believing in `Bear'

Trainer Baker has faith colt can run with `Brown'

Preakness

May 12, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

Trainer Reade Baker looked around the Pimlico Race Course barn Saturday morning. What he saw was the rain pounding on the roof and, aside from his Preakness entry Kentucky Bear, a lot of empty stalls.

"I'm from the old school," Baker said. "I've been in this a long time, and I've always thought you take a good horse to a big race early.

"I want my horse here. I want to take him to the track and breeze him and see how he likes it. I want to take him to the paddock and school him in the gate. I want to do everything I can to make him as familiar and comfortable on race day as I can. That's what great horsemen did. I guess these modern guys have different ways of doing things."

Baker grew up on a dairy farm, but his uncle took him to the racetrack when he was 14, and within 10 minutes, Baker said, he was sold.

"I never wanted to be a trainer," he said. "I really just wanted to work around the track. The job I liked best was being a jockey's agent, but I got stuck training."

Baker didn't appear to be joking. He was working as racing manager for Rick Kennedy, and in 1990, when Kennedy was phasing out his stable, Baker began training the few horses he still had. Then Baker opened his own stable, and Saturday he is running Kentucky Bear in the Preakness.

It is his first Triple Crown race, but don't expect Baker to express being thrilled about achieving a dream.

"It's what I do for a living," said Baker, 61. "A horseman's dream is to retire. It will help my business. The owner will be happy."

The owner, Danny Dion, is president of Bear Slashing Ltd., an oil exploration and mulching business that operates in Western Canada.

"He goes up in the oil patch in Northern Alberta and makes roads in the wintertime," Baker said.

"He's probably the only owner in the race doing something like that. He's a tough guy."

The first thing Dion said to Baker when they met, was: "Hi, I'm Danny Dion. I want you to train some horses. I want to win the Kentucky Derby."

Kentucky Bear, a son of Mr. Greeley and a surprise buy for $40,000 at Keeneland, was their best opportunity so far, but the horse's third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes left them on the outside looking in at the Derby.

So now it is on to the Preakness, and Baker's faith in his horse has not been shaken.

"It's plain and simple what our goal was, and if he had gotten in, he might have won it," Baker said. "I didn't think we'd be able to buy this horse in the first place. He was a big, grand-looking horse. There was a lot of interest in him. But he got loose the night before the sale and ran through some fences at Keeneland and scraped himself all up. Other people lost interest, but we took a shot. Thank God."

Baker pointed out his colt has run well on dirt, winning his maiden at Gulfstream, and on synthetics, third in the Blue Grass at Keeneland.

"He showed me he could run right away," Baker said. "Good ones usually do."

Baker said his horse has a good chance to win Saturday. He isn't put off by the presence of Big Brown, the Kentucky Derby winner, who dominated all the males in the Derby on May 3, with only the late filly Eight Belles anywhere close, 4 3/4 lengths back in second.

So Baker is here to give his horse a chance.

"Oh, I'm worried," Baker said. "I worry about everything. Worry is what I do. But I believe in my horse. Why? Because he is talented and he's fast."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

AT A GLANCE

What: 133rd Preakness, second leg of thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown

When: Saturday

Where: Pimlico Race Course

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

2007 winner: Curlin

Pre-race events

Tomorrow: Pee Wee Preakness, 11 a.m., Federal Hill Park.

Wednesday: Preakness Frog Hop, noon, War Memorial Plaza, City Hall.

Thursday: Preakness Crab Derby, noon, Lexington Market; Preakness Balloon Festival, 3 p.m., Turf Valley Resort; Miller Lite Nites, 7:30 p.m., Power Plant.

Friday: Ryan Shaw concert, 6 p.m., Harbor East.

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