ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Illinois – The late Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack used to talk about how hard he worked during morning training hours after he’d become an established rider. Namely, not hard at all. While other jockeys were breezing horses and hustling mounts, Hartack used to say, he was resting and saving his energy for actual races.
That’s a perspective E.T. Baird could get behind. Baird, at least in recent history, never has been known to go knocking barns down looking for horses to work. In later years, he often would take winters off and go back to race-riding virtually cold.
“My whole career, it used to be straight from the couch to riding,” Baird said.
Baird is 52 now, and for his latest comeback, which began Sunday, July 14 at Arlington, he has taken a new approach. “This is the first time I ever worked out,” he said.
Working out, in the idiosyncratic mind of E.T. Baird, means something different than for most folks. “I’ve been working at my house since March. Chain-sawing down trees, cutting my lawn manually, swinging 20- or 30-pound sledgehammers. I never liked the gym. My mind is better occupied working outside.”
Baird, the son of well-known jockey R.L. “Bobby” Baird, has won 2,411 races in a career that began in 1983 and will be the first to admit that total could be double had he taken a different approach. His second season riding, 1984, yielding 171 winners, 50 more than Baird would win in any other single year. Raw talent never has been an issue with Baird, one of the finest gate and speed riders you have ever seen ply his trade. It is the psychological aspect (not mental; Baird has a sharp mind) of a jockey’s life that at times has bottlenecked his career.
That was the case last summer, when Baird, who didn’t ride at all during 2017, attempted an Arlington comeback. He rode 11 winners from 71 mounts before taking another hiatus.
“I just don’t think I was ready in a lot of ways,” he said. “I’d taken that time off, but life itself, I just wasn’t in the frame of mind. I came back, but I wasn’t ready to come back. There were some things I had to take care of if I want to focus on this. I had lost focus about a lot of things. When you quit caring . . . I was at that point. But one day the light switch goes off – let me get this together. Time to get the show back on the road and take care of business.”
How much business Baird drums up remains an open question. He has no agent and is in the process of reintroducing himself to the backstretch, a middle-aged man now. Baird had no mounts on Thursday and Friday this week, one on Saturday. But there he was in his comeback run last weekend, making the front end with 9-1 shot Brittany on Blades, who led to deep stretch before getting touched off by a neck.
“It felt really good,” said E.T. Baird, who just might feel best when he is sitting on the back of a horse.
Harty’s odd stable finding Arlington success
Eoin Harty first got a little famous as an assistant to the very famous trainer Bob Baffert, and Harty, like any enterprising young horseman, parlayed that into a training career of his own. Harty (whose first name is pronounced “Owen”) is from Ireland, had been based in California with Baffert and had no strong Midwest ties, but his first year out on his own, 2000, opened a string at Arlington. Those were nearly entirely horses owned by Godolphin, the global racing and breeding powerhouse of Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, and while Harty still trains for Godolphin, his operation has changed quite a bit over time.
What it has changed to is something unusual, a mid-sized stable split between Southern California and Chicago. Sure, huge operations like that of trainer Steve Asmussen take stalls at tracks across the country, but trainers with the far more modest number of horses that Harty trains tend to keep things more concentrated.
“I would say when you look at the challenges of doing business in California right now, Arlington is looking okay,” said Harty, who has 30 stalls at Arlington this summer. “[California racing] has been heading this way, not only the level of competition, but all that goes with it. And for whatever reason, it’s easier to drum up business [in the Midwest] than on the East Coast. That’s basically the reason I do what I do.”
One reason Harty has chosen Arlington over another Midwest venue: The Polytrack racing surface, which he values. “I stay in Chicago because of the quality of the surface up there,” he said.
Harty is having his best Arlington season since 2003, when his barn won 11 races. Already this meet he has six wins, including two on Saturday, June 13, when Journeyman won for the second time this meeting, capturing an allowance race, and the 3-year-old filly Indigo Gin captured the Hatoof Stakes. Plans call for Indigo Gin to run back in the Grade 3 Pucker Up on Aug. 10, Arlington Million Day.
“She’s a tough cookie, not easy to train, not easy to be around, but has that very distinctive quality most horses don’t have: Tenacity,” said Harty. “She gives you 110-percent in everything she does every day of her life.”
Harty is being stretched to about 100-percent capacity too, right now. This week, he was in southern California to meet with the board of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, an organization to which he recently was elected president. Winning races at Arlington sounds much simpler.
Calumet, Sisterson make an Arlington mark
The famed devil’s red silks of Calumet Farm, one of the 20th century’s most successful Thoroughbred operations, are long gone. The Calumet name remains, but the silks worn by jockeys carrying its colors now are owner Brad Kelley’s black and yellow. And they found some success last weekend at Arlington.
Bandua, one of Calumet’s best runners right now, landed the Grade 3, $150,000 Arlington Handicap. Vexatious was a solid second in the Grade 3, $150,000 Modesty Handicap, while first-time starter King Snake, bet to favoritism in a 2-year-old maiden race, showed his talent before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, nailed at the wire in a Polytrack sprint he clearly led a furlong out.
All three horses are trained by English export Jack Sisterson, who began working for Calumet about one year ago and now oversees a substantial string at Calumet itself and Keeneland, which sits just a stone’s throw from the farm.
The affable Sisterson said Bandua, who finished third in the Secretariat Stakes last Million Day running fresh off the plane from Ireland, might or might not be back for the Million, with races in California and New York also being considered. But do expect Sisterson to show up regularly at Arlington. The ship from his Kentucky quarters isn’t exceedingly demanding and Sisterson is comfortable racing horses over Arlington’s synthetic main track.