05/13/2008 11:00PM

Canadian duo not lacking confidence

Email

ETOBICOKE, Ontario - In a Preakness that seems to be coming up long on numbers but short on color, trainer Reade Baker and owner Danny Dion are welcome participants.

Baker, 61, isn't exactly the shy and retiring type, whether the discussion involves his own business or industry issues in general. Dion, 48, is a somewhat larger-than-life character who earned the nickname "Bear" during his logging days in Quebec and now runs a very profitable oil exploration and bush-clearing business in Alberta.

On Saturday, Baker and Dion will be at Pimlico to field their first Triple Crown entrant, Kentucky Bear. They will also run Bear Now, a 4-year-old filly who brought national attention to Baker and Dion when winning the $750,000 Fitz Dixon Cotillion at Philadelphia Park last fall, in Saturday's $150,000 Allaire duPont Distaff.

Baker certainly has paid his dues, working around the racetrack as a groom, exercise rider, jockey agent, and racing manager before opening a public stable in 1989.

And, his refusal to acknowledge the invincibility of Big Brown after that colt was an impressive winner from the outside post in the Kentucky Derby has brought him some recent notoriety.

"He was a lot better than those horses in the Kentucky Derby," Baker said. "But, at the same time, that was a very specific racetrack, an extremely firm wet-fast track.

"The 20-hole looked like a negative going in, but it turned out to be a big positive. The other horses just seemed to let him go."

While Baker is not going so far as to predict victory for Kentucky Bear, who comes into the Preakness with just three starts under his belt, he certainly is not precluding that possibility.

Third in the Blue Grass in his most recent appearance on April 12, Kentucky Bear was entered in the Kentucky Derby but ranked last of 24 in graded earnings and did not make the cut.

"He's a big, healthy, talented horse that's doing great," Baker said.

Kentucky Bear has worked at Churchill, Keeneland, and Pimlico since the Blue Grass.

"He's had three great works, coming out of the Blue Grass," Baker said.

Baker, however, sees both Kentucky Bear and Big Brown sharing one potentially critical flaw.

"They both lack experience," he said. "Maybe that horse is so superior he'll be able to come right back from a difficult race like that.

"But a trainer's two best friends are time and luck, and I've got both."

The luck, which may more accurately be termed as skilled teamwork, has seen the Baker barn off to another solid start at Woodbine, where he has sent out 6 winners from 37 starters.

But Baker himself has yet to settle in at his home base this year, remaining at his winter headquarters at Palm Meadows until mid-April and then spending just a day a week at Woodbine while supervising Kentucky Bear's preparations for the Preakness and saddling stakes horses at other racetracks.

Baker has settled into a groove in recent years as one of Woodbine's top trainers. His accomplishments include a Sovereign Award as Canada's outstanding trainer in 2005, a year in which he trained Canadian champion 3-year-old filly Gold Strike and sprint titlist Judiths Wild Rush. That year also marked the beginning of Baker's association with Dion, who had bought his first horse on a whim during an evening in an Alberta tavern and had gradually built up his stable in his home province before looking eastward.

Dion knew the owners of Raylene, a champion Alberta racemare who had been sent to Baker in fall 2004 and was still with him the following summer. In what he claims is the first and only e-mail he has ever composed, Dion contacted Baker in summer 2005.

"I was interested in coming east to race," said Dion, who has continued to maintain a presence in Alberta with his original trainer Dale Greenwood.

"I told him I had many 'bears,' and that I'd like to come east and win some more races," added Dion, who christens almost all of his runners with the Bear prefix or suffix.

One month later, Baker sent out the 2-year-old Bear's Kid to win Woodbine's Grade 2 Summer Stakes.

"Then, I was really hooked," Dion said.

Baker and the Bear have become a going concern since then, attending numerous sales and adding some pricy stock to the Bear Stable.

There have been ups and downs, of course, but Dion remains undaunted.

"Bear Stable's goal is to win the Kentucky Derby," Dion said.

Dion is an example of Baker's success in attracting new clients. But some of Baker's methodology in that regard has not been particularly popular among certain of his colleagues, as his efforts to drum up new business have been viewed by some old-school types as unseemly.

"I've made myself available," Baker said. "Even when I didn't have the money, I'd spend two or three thousand attending the big sales, hoping to run into somebody who bought a Canadian-bred and then asking if I could train for them."

Baker, with the expert aid of his wife, Janis Maine, launched a newsletter and a website, sends out weekly e-mail progress reports to each owner, and has been a regular participant in new owner seminars.

"One of the major complaints of owners is that they never get any communication, or it's misleading," Baker said.

Baker also takes great pains to keep his clients happy with perks, including an annual owners appreciation party at his nearby residence.

"I've owned horses myself, and I know how tough it can be," Baker said. "The most difficult part is calling and telling an owner his horse has been injured.

"It might be just a small fracture, but it's career-ending. They don't spend their whole lives here; they don't grasp all the problems."

Baker also has an interesting sideline, as an owner and breeder of chickens and ducks in partnership with Frank Goodfellow.

Their birds have brought home numerous prizes at Ontario sites, including Toronto's prestigious Royal Winter Fair, and in U.S. invasions, including a show last year in Delaware that Baker calls "the Breeders' Cup of chickens."

Baker says it is not merely a competitive nature that has led to his involvement in both the equine and avian spheres.

"Certainly, I like to win," Baker said. "But I just love animals."

And, maybe bears are about to move to the top of his list.