EVEN though jockey George Baker was clearly elated by his unexpected Ladbrokes St Leger win seven days ago on the previously unheralded Harbour Law, it was the reaction of the wider Flat racing community that spoke volumes about their respect – and quiet admiration – for this unsung hero.
This was one of those all-too-rare occasions when the whole sport, including the St Leger’s defeated jockeys, were delighted that their friend and rival had won his first Classic because they know the sacrifices that this six-foot tall jockey makes each day just to make the nine stone weight.
It was exemplified by a photo, in the quiet sanctuary of the hallowed Doncaster weighing room at the end of a tumultuous day, of the 34-year-old being embraced by James Doyle who, surprisingly, is still to land a domestic Classic despite being in the privileged position of being one of Sheikh Mohammed’s retained riders.
And, typically, Baker – the proud son of a farrier – remains characteristically modest about a landmark success that came 16 years after his first winner, and long after a sudden growth spurt that saw him earn the unwanted distinction of becoming the tallest rider plying their trade on the Flat.
“It felt like a bit of a dream for a couple of days,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “People have been congratulating me all week and racegoers have been coming up to me, that’s when I started to realise what the win meant. When I went into racing, I didn’t do it because I wanted to be champion jockey – I did it because I wanted to ride winners. You always hope you can make a career out of it and anything else is a bonus.”
As well as being slightly self-deprecating, Baker is the undisputed master when it comes to acknowledging the role of others in his career. “Chris Wall had a horse called Premio Loco who won four Group Two races and a couple of Group Threes,” he said. “One of the wins was the Summer Mile at Ascot in 2010 which was quite a big deal. When you get a horse like that, it gives you confidence that trainers and owners are prepared to put you up.”
It is also a measure of the extent to which trainers like Wall, or the likes of Roger Charlton, Gary Moore, David Lanigan and Ed Walker, respect Baker as a horseman that they are prepared to use him when they know he cannot ride any horse allotted a weight less than nine stone.
However, as for the rider, he simply regards long mornings soaking in a steaming hot bath or working up a sweat in the gym, as nothing exceptional – and this from a sportsman who is as tall as Sir AP McCoy and weighs in a stone and a half less than the 20-times champion jump jockey.
“It’s part of the job,” says Baker matter of factly. “I get on with it or I don’t ride. People forget that at least 50 per cent of jockeys can struggle to make the weight.
£Normally, when you’re going for a sweat in the morning, it can be a bit of a grind. On Saturday, I looked forward to getting down to 9st 1lb because it meant I had a ride in the St Leger.”
And so to Harbour Law who had not been asked any questions when the Aidan O’Brien-trained Idaho took a false step in the home straight and unceremoniously unseated Seamie Heffernan.
Baker had to use all his strength, and years of experience, in the final strides as Harbour Law came with a rattling late run to deny Ventura Storm and Housesofparliament in a three-way finish that saw Laura Mongan become the first female trainer to saddle the winner of the race since its inception in 1776.
The jockey, a contemporary of Mongan’s husband who enjoyed such a long association with the late Sir Henry Cecil before hanging up the saddle, is the first to admit that he under-estimated Harbour Law when the unsung horse won at Salisbury on May 1.
“When I got off him that day, I didn’t think he would be winning a Classic,” he conceded.
“I thought he could be a good horse who would keep on improving, but not this good. However all the credit goes to Laura and Ian. They have given Harbour Law plenty of time between his races, and it has paid off.
“For a small yard, it is very tempting to run your good horses more frequently, but it doesn’t always work out. They had so much belief in the horse.”
The win also helped compensate Baker after Quest For More’s defeat in the final stride of the previous day’s Doncaster Cup.
Having set out to make every yard of the running in this historic two-and-a-quarter mile race, they were caught on the line by Sheikhzayedroad.
Like the aforementioned Premio Loco, this is one of those sturdy horses which provide Baker with a healthy supply of big race winners – and he is hoping that the aptly-named Global Applause can add to this tally in today’s Dubai Duty Free Mill Reef Stakes at Newbury.
He says it will take a tough horse to beat Ed Dunlop’s charge on rain-softened ground.
In the meantime, Baker is closing in on a fourth successive century of winners in a calendar year, a level of consistency that would surely have landed one of Flat racing’s job jobs if he had been six inches shorter.
“I’ve won a Leger and it would be nice to win another Classic, but I am realistic to know these chances don’t come along very often,” he added. If they do, no one will begrudge racing’s ultimate grafter for seizing the chance.