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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.