If acclaim was bestowed fairly, rather than in bouts of transient fashion, George Baker would be celebrated as one of Flat racing’s unequivocal success stories. A look at the numbers alone is praise enough. The jockey who can barely ride at 9st enjoyed a phenomenal 2014. He rode more than 100 winners during the (old) Flat jockeys’ championship, when competition is at its strongest.
He closed the year with the grand total of 162 winners, a personal best by some distance, while his strike-rate of 20% was bettered only by Ryan Moore, widely acknowledged as the world’s best jockey. All this from a man who is weighted out of two – sometimes three – races on a routine card. Or put another way, Baker has only 60% of the opportunity afforded most other riders.
One further detail warrants attention. Baker scaled these heights at the age of 32, which marked his 17th year in the saddle. He has flourished at an age when a jockey’s merit would have long been set in stone.
And who knows? The jockeys’ carousel that took William Buick and James Doyle to Godolphin, and Ryan Moore increasingly abroad, has opened doors at some of Newmarket’s most powerful stables. The Baker story could require further upgrading by the summer’s end.
So why have his fortunes taken such a turn for the better? “I don’t really know,” he says. “It never seemed to let up last year. I didn’t think I was doing anything different but I did get plenty of opportunities from decent yards. I had to pinch myself at times.
“Everything went right. I was also injury-free, and when the turf season started I rode some Group winners. It’s a great feeling when you’re on that kind of run. You think you’re indestructible.”
Baker rode five Group winners last year, the same number he’d accrued in 16 previous years. He gained his second career Group 1 triumph – Seal Of Approval’s Filly & Mare Stakes win on Champions Day 2013 was the first – aboard Thistle Bird in the Pretty Polly Stakes.
He was also in the right place at the right time. James Doyle’s retainer with Khalid Abdullah saw Baker pick up some choice mounts for Roger Charlton, with whom he had existing links.
The first few months of 2015 have been less productive, although Baker is unconcerned. He hasn’t had the same ammunition. His principal source, Gary Moore’s stable, has had more jumpers and consequently fewer horses to run on the all-weather.
“You get blocks of horses that come and go like that, but I’ve still had a good few winners,” he reflects. “It’s been a constant flow, rather than manic, and that’s allowed me to have a couple of week-long breaks in Dubai. I have recharged the batteries and given my body a rest.”
So he’s ready to go, braced for another turf campaign, and hoping the alliances that served him so well last year remain intact. Nevertheless, it’s a reflection of life as a freelance jockey that Baker takes nothing for granted.
“When I packed up in December,” he relates, “I remember telling Guy [Jewell, his agent] it was difficult to see my winners total go from 162 to zero, and that I’d have to get back up there with no guarantees.
“Being freelance means I can only hope to be on the same horses I rode last year,” he continues.
“You have to pretty much prove yourself every year, but in a way I find that to be a good thing. It drives you on, you’ve got to get out there, ride out, keep the revs up as much as you can.”
Although Baker claims to give it little thought, it can’t be easy wondering whether the quality horses you rode last year will again be your preserve. Al Kazeem, trained by Charlton, is a case in point.
You have to pretty much prove yourself every year, but in a way I find that to be a good thing; it drives you on
Despite his link with Abdullah last season, Doyle continued to ride Al Kazeem when circumstances permitted. Baker duly got his chance in the Group 3 Winter Hill Stakes, which Al Kazeem won, and the next time he rode the horse was in the Champion Stakes, when Noble Mission – ironically ridden by Doyle – narrowly prevailed in that barn-storming finish.
Any jockey would be entitled to believe he should keep the ride, yet when Al Kazeem made his seasonal reappearance in France over Easter, Baker wasn’t considered because he couldn’t do the weight. Ryan Moore stepped in to collect the bounty.
“Not being able to make the weight is always going to be a hindrance to me,” Baker says. “Some years ago I’d have got frustrated, but now I know there’s nothing I can do about it. You can’t let these things wind you up. Al Kazeem was a spare ride for me in the first place, and so was Thistle Bird. You really have to prove yourself when those opportunities come around.”
Baker speaks in an unassuming, almost self-deprecating tone. He is courteous, more than capable of annunciating his thoughts, and scrupulously fair. He doesn’t condemn a new development, like the revised jockeys’ championship, simply because it might not suit him personally.
He has a broader perspective than most of his contemporaries, but then, he appreciates how fortunate he is to be riding at all.
It has been a long road back for the man whose professional aspirations imploded when he was thrown from a horse in the paddock at Goodwood in 2002. He had a fit there and then; a brain haemorrhage sidelined him for ten months, during which his weight ballooned to 8st 11lb. He was six feet tall and 19 years old.
It really should have been the end of the line, yet three years later he’d rebounded to surpass his previous-best total of 55 winners, which he posted as an apprentice. By then, however, he had already engaged in his daily feud with the scales.
That in itself has been an intense duel. His day starts with breakfast, followed by a hot bath. The routine is so well established that he describes his bathroom as his office.
“I have geared myself up,” he says with a smile. “I’ve got a TV in there, my phone is connected to speakers via Bluetooth and I give myself a set time to lose the weight I need to. I try to make sure I’m ready to ride when I leave home. I try to stay out of [racecourse] saunas if at all possible.”
For jockeys like Baker, the process of maintaining a stable weight has advanced considerably. Those before him survived on a regime of steam rooms and saunas – often to sweat off the previous night’s alcohol intake. If Baker had followed suit he would almost certainly be on the rack.
“Baths and saunas are short-term fixes,” he avers. “You’re cooked if you lose all your weight that way; you’ve got to get weight off through hard work. I am a lot fitter now than I was three or four years ago because I do plenty of running.”
Baker winces when asked how much weight he would gain if he sat down to a Sunday roast with all the trimmings, washed down with half a bottle of red wine. “Alcohol really ruins my weight, so I hardly drink at all now,” he says.
“I wouldn’t be particularly heavy the next day but I’d be dry inside, dehydrated. And in those circumstances, when you start drinking water, your body holds on to it. I would easily put on 7lb – and it would take me three or four days to lose it.”
Few jockeys are better placed to understand the hardship Joseph O’Brien is currently enduring in his battle with the scales. Baker watches O’Brien’s tribulations from afar, but the pattern of events is both familiar and unmistakable.
“Joseph is a big guy; he is broader than Adam Kirby or me,” Baker says. “He doesn’t ride through the winter, and I think that makes a big difference. When you stop riding for any length of time you try to lead a half-normal life, and Joseph is only 21. His weight won’t yet have stabilised, as mine has.
“He is obviously fighting it hard. I’ve seen him when he comes over [to Britain] and he’s pretty sensible. He’s not doing stupid things. He was probably trying to get his weight down nice and gradually, but initially it didn’t seem to be working. He has the best motivation in the world with all those beautifully-bred horses to ride, but he is fighting nature really.”
O’Brien’s travails are part of a dynamic that has brought considerable change to the weighing-room. It is one of the fallen dominos that often result from one or two new riding contracts. Baker can hardly be blamed for wondering whether it might play to his advantage.
“William Buick moving on has opened doors at John Gosden’s,” he says. “It’s the same with Andrea Atzeni at Roger Varian’s, and perhaps there will be chances at Sir Michael Stoute’s. There is massive firepower in Newmarket, and while I don’t ride for any of those stables you never quite know what is going to happen.”
This is the flipside of the Al Kazeem scenario, one which offers hope to all freelancers like Baker. Equally, he has learned not to expect too much. Those 162 winners have set a high bar for 2015, and he doesn’t believe it realistic to ride 200 winners in a calendar year.
“It would be a great thing to achieve,” he says, “but Luke Morris rides light and he hasn’t yet managed to do it. To be honest I’d be delighted to ride another 100 winners during the turf season and keep up the quality.”
Spring is traditionally a time for optimism and Baker approaches it with plenty to anticipate. In addition to a regular supply of rides for the likes of Charlton, Moore and Chris Wall, he rides out regularly for Charlie Hills and has a verbal understanding to ride when available for David Lanigan’s main patron Bjorn Nielsen.
Having achieved a degree of consistency in maintaining his weight, Baker now brings consistency to his work in the saddle. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he is reaping rewards for those early years of toil.
“Years ago, when my weight went up and down, I sometimes used to wonder whether it was all worth it,” he reflects.
“It is a very different feeling now. I don’t think I’ll be riding into my late 40s but I’m in a good place. I’m just going to enjoy what’s left.”
When defeat was snatched from the jaws of Glory
Winners come, losers go, but few jockeys experienced the angst George Baker was obliged to contend with at Doncaster last September. The jockey went from winner to loser in half a stride.
Riding Cotai Glory for Charlie Hills in the Group 2 Flying Childers Stakes, Baker never saw another rival as the winning post loomed. He’d made all the running aboard a horse that had broken the Goodwood track record in the Molecomb Stakes on his previous start and was home for all money.
Or so Baker thought. Out of nowhere, Cotai Glory jinked sharply to his right, and the next thing Baker knew he was picking himself up, unhurt, off the Town Moor turf.
“Everyone seems to have different views on what happened,” he reflects ruefully. “Mine is that the horse knew where he’d come out onto the track. He was running completely straight until we got to the furlong pole and from there I could feel him edging to the right.
“Then, just as he suddenly ducked right towards the gate where he’d come onto the track a few minutes earlier, my saddle slipped, maybe half an inch,” he continues. “When that happens it‘s very, very hard to keep your balance. And off I went.
“It was a devastating feeling. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before, so it was Sod’s Law for it to happen in a Group 2. It’s bad enough falling off, but when you know you’re about to win a big race, it is even worse. Cotai Glory is a very talented horse but he has his quirks. There’s no doubt whatsoever he would have won.”
It remains to be seen whether horse and jockey are reunited this year in the quest for redemption, but Baker is keenly anticipating the reappearance of another fast horse. He believes Lightning Moon, whose unbeaten three-race resumé includes the Group 3 Bengough Stakes at Ascot, has what it takes to make a big impact in the sprint division.
“He was among the favourites for the Champion Sprint until he got ill just before the race,” Baker says of the Ed Walker-trained four-year-old. “He is a really strong horse who I hope to get back on this year, and I know Ed thinks the world of him. Hopefully he can step up to the top level.”