10/17/2001 12:00AM

After 20 years at top, Baird is unseated

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Trainer Gary Lee Johnson has accomplished what no trainer has been able to do in 20 years - win a training title from Dale Baird at Mountaineer Park.

Johnson defeated Baird 40-38 at the Mountaineer summer meet, which ended last Saturday.

Baird, the winningest trainer in North American history with 8,569 winners, had not lost a training title at Mountaineer since 1981.

Johnson, a native of Cleveland, has been the winningest trainer at Thistledown the past four seasons and has won 19 straight meeting titles there, including the meet that ended on Monday.

Johnson began his career on the backstretch as a groom 25 years ago and worked his way up to the training ranks. An avid gambler, Johnson quit training in the late 1980's and became a public handicapper with a telephone handicapping service. His biggest success as a handicapper came in 1991 when a syndicate he put together picked six of seven winners and collected more than $2 million dollars on the first national Breeders' Cup Pick 7.

Johnson returned to training six years ago with Mark Yagour as his main owner, and the combination has been highly successful, with Johnson winning the vast majority of his 743 career wins since the pair teamed up. Yagour, general manager of the Safeway Tire Company, was part of Johnson's winning pick six partnership.

Currently, Yagour owns more than 100 horses, including three stallions who stand at his 57-acre showplace farm in Claridon, Ohio. Johnson has 40 stalls at Thistledown and 20 at Mountaineer and rotates horses off the farm and between the racetracks.

Yagour has purchased two 10-horse vans to haul his horses to run around the Midwest to race.

To celebrate Johnson's recent training titles, Yagour was to have held a party at Northfield Park, a nearby harness track, on Wednesday night. It was expected to be attended by about 200 people.

"Owners and good help are the ones that make it happen," said Johnson, "and I have both."

Johnson's stable foreman at Thistledown is Robin Zulewski, another Cleveland native.