10/15/2004 12:00AM

Baird closes in on another milestone

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Chuck Saus/Mountaineer Race Track
A plaque at Dale Baird Racing Stable highlights one of the trainer's many achievements over his 44-year career. Through Oct. 14, Baird's 8,990 wins are over 2,500 more than runner-up Jack Berg.

Dale Baird is the ultimate big fish in a small pond. For more than 20 years, Baird and his large string of blue-collar horses have dominated racing at Mountaineer Race Track in West Virginia.

Operating far from the limelight, Baird has won more races than anyone in history. Sometime soon, he will record his 9,000th career victory, a record that may never be broken. To put his achievement into perspective, Baird, who at 69 is in his 44th year as a trainer, is more than 2,500 wins ahead of the second-winningest trainer, Jack Van Berg.

Baird led the nation in wins 15 times between 1971 and 1999 and finished as the leading owner 17 times. In 1973 he became the first trainer to win more than 300 races in a single season. He won every meet title at Mountaineer for 20 consecutive years, a streak that Gary Johnson ended in 2001.

Through Oct. 14, according to Daily Racing Form statistics, Baird has 8,990 career victories.

A stickler for detail, Baird maintains that, according to records he has kept for the past 25 years, he's two wins closer to the milestone.

Despite all his accomplishments, Baird shares something in common with Pete Rose. Neither Rose, baseball's all-time leader in base hits, nor Baird is a member of their sport's Hall of Fame.

Although Baird's name has been brought up for consideration by racing's Hall of Fame committee, he has never received sufficient support to be named a finalist. Joe Hirsch, former longtime executive columnist for Daily Racing Form, wrote a column campaigning for Baird three years ago, but otherwise he has largely been ignored by the media.

Baird, a soft-spoken man clearly uncomfortable talking about himself, maintains that his omission from the Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is a non-issue.

"It doesn't bother me," Baird said, when contacted by phone at his farm in Newell, W.Va., located about six miles from Mountaineer. "There's nothing I can do about it."

His wife, Diane, said Baird cares more than he lets on. "It's not a sore subject with him, but it is a hurtful one," she said. "It hurts his pride and his feelings. It's totally ridiculous that he hasn't made the Hall of Fame yet."

Van Berg, who frequently was neck-and-neck with Baird for leading trainer honors in the 1980's, said there's no doubt that Baird belongs in the Hall of Fame.

"He's way, way more deserving than some of the other trainers who are in there," said Van Berg, a Hall of Famer himself. "I admire Dale for what he's done. He's done it with his own money and his own horses."

Steve Asmussen, who led the United States in wins in 2002 and is the runaway leader again this year, said winning 9,000 races is an extraordinary accomplishment, regardless of the level of competition.

"It's hard to win races anywhere," Asmussen said. "If it's a $3,500 claiming race for West Virginia-breds, you've got to be able to win it with a horse that's worth $3,500, and that's not easy to do."

Baird is a wheeler-dealer who owns nearly all the horses he races, most of them claiming-caliber stock acquired via private purchase. He has agents constantly on the lookout for horses and faxing him past performances. Baird looks for horses that fit the condition book at Mountaineer - with a preference for maidens and lightly raced horses still eligible for nonwinners-of-two or three races lifetime. He usually makes his decision to buy without seeing the actual horse.

Baird estimated that the average price he pays for a horse these days is about $25,000.

Baird's financial dealings are a closely guarded secret, which is one of the prime reasons he rarely claims a horse from another trainer.

"He doesn't like anybody knowing his business," Diane Baird said. "He never wants anybody to know how much he paid for a horse."

That's part of Baird's success formula. By keeping other trainers in the dark about how much he paid for a particular horse, he can place the animal at a claiming level where he believes it can win, and still make a profit if somebody drops a slip in the claiming box.

Baird has about 50 horses stabled at Mountaineer and another 45 at his farm. Several family members are also involved in racing. His brother, John; son, Bart; and nephew, Mike, are all trainers based at Mountaineer. Another son, Perry, and a daughter, Janet Wood, each owns one horse their father has in training.

Bart Baird, who worked as an assistant trainer for his father for about 12 years until going out on his own in 1995, said he most admires his dad's uncanny knack of judging horseflesh.

"He can see things in a horse that most people can't," Bart Baird said. "He can watch it walk about three steps and know more about that horse than the man who has it. If you just follow him around and pay attention, you'll learn a lot about horses."

It may seem like Baird has been around forever and will never retire, but he admits he's in the twilight of his career.

"I won't be around to reach 10,000," said Baird, who would need at least another five years to get to that level, based on how long it took him to get from win number 8,000 in 1999 to the verge of 9,000.

The keener competition resulting from purses fattened by revenue from slots has diminished Baird's dominance at Mountaineer. During his best seasons, from 1996-99, he won at a 20 percent clip or better, including 23 percent in 1999, when he won 330 races. This year, Baird's winning percentage is 11 percent, 6 percent below his career average.

Baird grew up in Martinsville, Ill., the second oldest of 12 children. His father, John "J.I." Baird, was a horse trader and small-time farmer who trained horses on the Illinois fair circuit. Dale Baird briefly rode for his father, then, when he grew too large to remain a jockey, switched to training. He won his first race in 1961 at Ellis Park, only to see the horse disqualified.

Baird eventually gravitated to West Virginia, racing first at Wheeling Downs and then at what was known as Waterford Park, the predecessor to Mountaineer, located hard by the Ohio River in Chester, W.Va., some 40 miles from Pittsburgh.

"They raced year-round and there were cheap horses," Baird recalled of his early days in West Virginia. "If you paid more than $1,500 or $2,000 for a horse, you couldn't make any money because the purses were so small."

In his first full year of training in 1962, Baird's horses won 23 races and $19,465 in purses.

Baird, who still does much of his own work, including driving the horse van and mucking stalls, enjoyed the biggest day of his career on Memorial Day 2001, when his horses ran one-two in a pair of $58,000 stakes at Mountaineer. The winners, the mare Chelsie's House and the older male Nature, were the most expensive horses Baird has ever bought. He paid $90,000 for Chelsie's House and $70,000 for Nature - and turned a profit on both of them.

When he's not racing nights at Mountaineer, Baird occasionally makes the 90-minute one-way trip to Thistledown in northern Ohio.

"Racing's all I do," Baird said. "It's like a job."

Measured by wins, Baird has done that job better than anyone else.

DALE BAIRD

Age: 69

Home: Newell, W. Va.

Career record: 8,990 wins, 7,759 places, 7,152 thirds, $28,856,770 earnings.

Milestones:

* Aug. 18, 1961: Baird saddles his first winner, New York, at Ellis Park.

* 1973: Baird wins his second national training title with 305 victories, the first trainer ever to surpass 300 in a single season.

* 1978: Baird finishes as the nation's leading owner for the first time with 162 victories.

* Aug. 5, 1988: Baird win his 5,000th career race with Stuffed Johnnie at Mountaineer Park, becoming the second trainer in history, behind Jack Van Berg, to reach that mark.

* July 22, 1999: Baird records his 8,000th victory at Mountaineer Race Track, sending out Midsummer Scene to take the sixth race.