St. Johns native Jerry Baird didnt grow up around horses, but hes now one of Canadas top jockeys
Jerry Baird is one of the countrys best jockeys, despite never riding a horse before he left St. Johns at the age of 17. Photo by the Woodbine Entertainment Group
You can't blame Jerry Baird if he feels the need to pinch himself every once in a while just to make sure he's not dreaming.
The St. John's native didn't grow up on a farm and wasn't familiar with animals - certainly not thoroughbred race horses - when he left for Toronto in 1986 at the age of 17. But that didn't stop him from becoming one of the top jockeys in the country.
At 38, Baird is enjoying the most successful year of his career, having already wracked up close to $2 million in purse winnings (that money goes to the horses' owners). Today, Baird will take part in the biggest race of his career when he rides Bear Now into action at the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport, New Jersey, the season-ending championship of thoroughbred racing.
This marks the first time in Baird's career he has qualified for the Breeders' Cup, and when he speaks of the event, it's obvious how proud Baird is of the accomplishment.
"It's every jockey's dream to go to a Breeders' Cup. I never thought I'd be there," said Baird.
Baird's journey to the Breeder's Cup hasn't been without obstacles. Early in his career, he was flung from a horse and suffered a back injury that forced him to the sidelines for close to a year. Baird also had problems with alcohol abuse in the past, but is happy to report that's a battle he's won, hands down.
Through it all, Baird remained focused on honing his skills as a jockey and soaked up everything he could about thoroughbred racing.
"I had to work so hard," Baird said.
"I galloped a whole bunch of horses ... it was early morning work, I'd be (at the stable) by 5 a.m. and I wouldn't go home until five that night. I did that seven days a week. I definitely did work my butt off."
Growing up in St. John's, Baird never gave much thought to a career as a jockey. But when he was 17, a horse owner from Toronto convinced him to give the sport a shot, partly because Baird had the perfect size for a jockey.
"My aunt's boyfriend at the time gave me the opportunity to come up (to Toronto in the summer) and become a jockey," said Baird. "He saw how small I was (5-foot-5, 112 pounds) and offered me the chance to become a jockey. He said I could come up (to Toronto) and give it a try and if I didn't like it I could just go back home."
Baird was given a few jobs that didn't seem relevant to riding a horse. He cleaned stables - a lot of them actually - and was constantly walking horses, as well as cleaning them. While these weren't glamorous positions, they did help Baird learn about horses and the industry, all under the watchful eye of his first trainer, Mike Tammaro.
"He worked me from the ground up," said Baird.
"I didn't know anything about horses, so I had to get used to them. I started walking them, learned how to groom them, clean their stall, everything. After three or four months of hard labour, he finally stuck me on a horse. I wasn't nervous, I was actually really excited to be on this powerful animal."
Baird took to his new craft quickly, winning his first race on March 24, 1989 atop a horse named Reno at Laurel Park in Maryland. The victories kept coming for Baird and today he is one of the top jockeys in Canada.
"It's a thrill every time I ride," Baird said of his career.
The only downside to being a professional jockey is the nature of the business itself.
The jockeys are constantly battling for the chance to ride the top horses and the owners are always competing for the top jockeys. The result is a very competitive business in which you can't get too close to your colleagues.
"It's a highly competitive game and there's a lot of money at stake. It's not a cheap sport," said Baird, who has an agent to help him with the business side of things. "It's just constantly promoting yourself. You're constantly trying to get the best horses. You can be the best you've ever felt, but you have to have the horses to make your career go forward.
"But I love it. If I didn't love it as much as I do, I wouldn't keep up with it."
Judging by the tone of Baird's voice, it's fair to say today's race at the Breeders' Cup is the biggest day of his career, so far. A win in Philadelphia on Sept. 22 (first place in a $750,000 race) helped Baird and Bear Now qualify for the Breeders' Cup, and Baird is confident the three-year-old filly has what it takes to cross the finish line first this afternoon.
"Absolutely, she definitely deserves to be in this race, competing against this quality of horses," said Baird. "The way she ran in Philadelphia, she beat some nice horses.
"She'll be up against some of those horses again (today), as well as a few other horses she hasn't raced against before."
On the biggest day of the year in a very competitive sport, the Breeders' Cup will be a tension-filled event for many horse owners, trainers and jockeys. However, Baird says that only makes the day more fun.
"The more money there is, the more tense it is," he said.
"But for me, this is why I get up in the morning."