Fred Baker's stable at Gulfstream Park is virtually surrounded by outfits with horse who regularly make headlines: horse who cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, horses with multimillion-dollar potential at stud.
But those animals are so remote from Baker's life that they might as well be stabled on another planet. Baker plays this game for the stakes that would be considered relatively inconsequential, if they weren't so crucial to him.
For the 31-year-old trainer, winning two claiming races this winter has made the difference between economic survival and failure. When one member of his three-horse stable was claimed from him, he had to scramble to find a replacement, because the $30 per-diem rate he collects for training a horse is significant income for him.
There can be as much pressure training at this level of the sport as there is training a Kentucky Derby contender, but it is pressure that Baker has embraced vountarily and enthusiastically. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics from George Washington University, but knew all along that he wanted to spend his life around the track. He turned down a $22,000-a-year job with the C & P Telephone Co. to wwalk horses for $75 a week at the Maryland tracks.
There, he embarked on a course of study as rigorous as any of his academic pursuits. "i went from trainer to trainer," he said, "working for them to learn their techniques. When I felt I'd extracted everything I could learn, I'd go on to another one." Baker labored as a groom for 17 different trainers before an owner turned over a few cheap horses to him, and he set out for Grantville, Pa., to launch his new career at Penn National Race Track.
He launced it so successfully that he was forced with a great temptation. Baker was making a reputation for himself at Penn National, and he could easily have become a big fish in that small pond.
He declined, choosing to spend his winters in Florida and the rest of the year in Maryland, where he would be a minnow in an ocean of sharks. But shortly after he made the move, the principal owner for whom he trained was murdered. "My career was shot," Baker said. "I'd built up that stable for three years, till we were ready for the major tracks. Now I had to sell the horses."
Baker was left with three claiming horses he trained for his uncle and was trying to compete against the big Maryland outfits. They had not only strength in numbers but a security that Baker envied: "When a guy has 80 horses, he can make mistakes and sweep them under the rug."
When a trainer depends on three horses for his livelihood, he can't sweep anything under the rug.
Baker gallops his own horses in the morning, which not only saves him money but puts him in close touch with his animals' capabilities. One day this winter, he was exercising a $12,000 claimer named Carolina Skipper. "Ever drive a car that's just had a blowout? That's what this horse felt like under me."
Carolina Skipper had a fractured knee and his value dipped from approximately $12,000 to approximately zero.. So Baker entered Carolina Skipper in a $6,500 claiming race and prayed that some unsuspecting trainer would take the horse from him.
To encourage this, Baker said: "I talked the horse for days. I touted him as the cinch of the century. I told people that my horse would have his picture taken before the others were unsaddled."
Carolina Skipper was practically staggering at the end of the race, but one trainer took the bait and claimed the infirm animal, giving Baker $6,500 with which to buy another horse.
Some day, when he had made the necessary contacts with prosperous owners and is training horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, Baker may look on such machinations with a litle distaste. He will be pampering his horse, looking on them as noble creatures who populate the sport of kings. But until he reaches the upper echelon of his profession, such a view of the game is a luxury he cannot afford.