Thomas J. 'Tommy' Baker, Jockey Club's racing secretary, dies

He had worked at area tracks for half a century and was admired for his racing acumen

  • Tommy Baker, shown in 1999
Tommy Baker, shown in 1999 (Kim Hairston )
May 18, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Thomas Jefferson Baker, the former Maryland Jockey Club's racing secretary at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park who earlier in his professional life had been a jockey and a trainer, died May 12 of a heart attack at Laurel Regional Hospital.

He was 82.

Mr. Baker was born and raised in West Chester, Pa., where he attended public schools.

"Some run away to the circus, and he ran away to horse racing when he was a teenager," said his son, Timothy J. Baker, who lives in Ellicott City. "He had ridden in fox hunts and parlayed his lifelong love of horses and riding into his life's work."

In 1944, he began galloping horses during the summer, and later rode hunters and show horses. When he was 17, he began working as a stable hand at Blue Stone Farm, and was 18 when he won his first race aboard Bungalese at Havre de Grace in 1947.

Mr. Baker kept a framed winner's circle photo of the event on the wall of his office for the rest of his life. He told The Baltimore Sun in 1999 that such wins were rare: He won only 20 races in four years.

"I rode from 1947 to about 1949 or 1950, and I was one jock who didn't quit for a weight problem," Mr. Baker told The Sun in a 1982 interview. "I won a few races, but I had to be one of the worst."

He served with the Army's 194th Tank Battalion from 1951 to 1953.

After he was discharged from the Army, Mr. Baker worked 11 years as assistant to trainer Bernie Bond before taking out his own trainer's license. It was not uncommon for him to train 30 horses at a time.

When he began suffering from stomach ulcers, he quit training horses in 1972, and began working on the Maryland circuit as a patrol judge and placing judge. That same year, he took a job in the racing office.

In 1978, he became chief assistant to Larry Abbundi, who was then racing secretary at Laurel, Pimlico and the Bowie Training Center, as well as Delaware Park, where Mr. Baker also spelled his boss.

When Mr. Abbundi retired in 1993, Mr. Baker took over his job.

He was responsible for "writing the condition book — deciding in advance which races in all horse age groups and at specific distances will be carded each day — and [oversaw] the daily function of taking entries and coordinates most horsemen-related activities," reported The Sun in 1993.

Additional duties included assigning stalls at Pimlico, Laurel and Bowie, assigning weights for handicap races, and overseeing the taking of entries for the races he had written.

He also oversaw jars of candy he kept on his desk for the horsemen and jockeys who visited his office.

When asked by a reporter what the favorite part of his job was, he replied, "Dealing with the horsemen on a daily basis," and when asked the least favorite, he said, "I can't really think of one."

"I got to know Tom as an administrator, and he was really knowledgeable," said Joseph B. Kelly, retired Washington Star racing editor and turf historian.

"I didn't know him as a rider, and then he became a trainer and then went to the racing secretary's office. Working in that office required a wide knowledge of the sport, which he had," recalled Mr. Kelly, who earlier in his career had covered racing for The Sun.

"He was also very friendly and popular with horsemen, trainers and had a good touch with people," Mr. Kelly said.

"He was the nicest man in the world and the best boss. He was just an all-around good guy," said Georgeanne Hale, who became Mr. Baker's assistant and then succeeded him as racing secretary.

"There is always lots of pressure, but he handled it. He was too nice for the job, if you want to know the truth," said Ms. Hale.

"He was a real credit to Maryland's horse racing industry," said former Sun racing writer Ross Peddicord, who is now executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board.

"Tommy was the kind of all-around Maryland horseman that is the hallmark of our state's horse racing legacy and culture," said Mr. Peddicord. "For many years, he served as assistant racing secretary at Maryland Jockey Club tracks, knew the racing business inside and out, and had the respect of the state's horsemen."

Mr. Peddicord added: "He also always stood out, too, because he was always a natty dresser."

In 1999, Mr. Baker was the recipient of the Maryland Racing Writers' Association's Humphrey S. Finney Award for lifetime achievement.

The award citation said Mr. Baker brought "decency, tact, diligence and caring" to his work as racing secretary.

At the time, Donald Barr, a Maryland horseman and trainer, said, "He's one of the finest people in the racing business. He's such a good guy. If anything, that's his fault — he tries to please everyone."

At his 1999 retirement, The Baltimore Sun observed that Mr. Baker had "progressed through the ranks with unwavering grace and decency."

"After he retired, it was pretty much a clean break, and he kept a low profile. I think he went back to the track only a handful of times, to his office to visit former co-workers," his son said.

In his retirement, he enjoyed playing golf at the Gunpowder Golf Course in Laurel, his son said.

At Mr. Baker's request, there will be no services.

Also surviving are his wife of 58 years, the former Elizabeth Jenkins; a sister, Jeanne Pizii of Vermont; and two grandchildren.

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