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JACK BAKER RODE HIMSELF INTO AUSTRALIAN RACING HISTORY

By Phil Purser
13/05/2010
Jockey Jack Baker was officially invited back to Rosehill racetrack twice by the Sydney Turf Club to relive his 1929 Maiden win. He is pictured here in 1996 at the course.
On April 15, 1911 at Kelly’s Plains near Armidale in New South Wales a bouncing baby boy entered the world as the son of jockey-cum-farmer Frank Baker and his wife Elizabeth. They named their newly born son Jack. Whilst it is taken as read that the name Jack Baker may not be indelibly imprinted on the minds of lovers of racing like say Darby Munro, Neville Sellwood, or George Moore may be, Jack nevertheless earned a special place in the history of Australian racing.
 
Young Jack had a normal childhood for the era – at the time when the horse was still the principal means of transport. Jack learnt to ride horses at his parents’ farm and rode his first winner at age 9, when he piloted a horse to victory on Dangarsleigh School Sports day. Diminutive in stature, he left school at age 15 and worked in the shoe department of a local store before acknowledging that wasn’t for him and deciding to take up an apprenticeship with Randwick trainer Richard Wootton, the man whose son Stanley would later single-handedly change the face of the Australian breeding industry by importing a stallion called Star Kingdom.

Phar Lap, ridden by 17-year-old apprentice Jack Baker, arrives in time to win his Maiden at Rosehill on April 24, 1929.
Whilst working for Richard Wootton, the 17-year-old teenager Jack Baker – who weighed 6 stone 7 pounds wringing wet – got to know a trainer named Harry Telford who had horses stabled near Wootton. Telford took an interest in the young apprentice from Armidale and had the young teenager ride a “big and very lazy” galloper for him and paid him a shilling (10 cents) a week to exercise the horse “about three times a week”.
 
Telford rewarded the boy by letting him ride the chestnut gelding in a race, the Easter Stakes at Randwick – but the horse went like a dromedary, nearly holding up the next. Telford again showed his faith in the apprentice by legging him aboard the horse, that in fairness, no other jockey would have been really interested in riding on April 27, 1929. Telford concluded Baker’s five-pound weight claim would help the horse. The Great Depression had come to Australia and life’s necessities – primarily money and jobs – were hard to come by. In the betting ring on 27/4/1929 Telford astutely went about getting himself through the Great Depression financially unscathed. He backed his horse from 20-1 into 7-1 in the betting ring. As the horses turned for home with a 400-odd-metre run to the wire, an apprentice named Maurice McCarten had dashed leader Pure Tea clear by “8 to 10 lengths”. Young Baker, who had ridden 19 winners in his career-to-date, didn’t know it at the time but he was about to write himself into equine immortality. The horse he sat astride, named Phar Lap, came charging home along the fence to snare victory in the shadows of the post. Phar Lap had finally won a race – a Maiden Handicap. Whilst Telford sent Phar Lap to spell straight after the win and only ever used fully fledged jockeys at the horse’s subsequent starts, he didn’t forget to reward Jack Baker for his sterling ride and gave him a 25 pounds ($50) sling. That may not seem much money in today’s dollar terms, but to put it in perspective it was 2,500 times the shilling amount he got for riding him trackwork three times a week. The enormity of the 2,500 times the weekly trackwork riding sling would equate to about $37,500 today, given that a jockey would get paid say $15 a week to ride a horse three times in trackwork (ie $5 per day).

A frail Jack Baker was photographed by a family member in 1999 with Federal Minister Joe Hockey, at a luncheon at the Sydney Turf Club. Sadly, Jack passed away four months later.
It’s racing folklore that Phar Lap’s career blossomed after his Maiden win and he went on to win 37 of his 51 lifetime starts. Included in his 37 victories was a sequence of 14 straight wins between September 13, 1930 and March 4, 1931, the crowning glory of those 14 straight wins was his victory as top weight for jockey Jim Pike, lumping 9 stone 12 pounds (62.5kgs) from barrier 13, at age four, in the 1930 Melbourne Cup.
 
Apart from Jack Baker and Jim Pike, Phar Lap had eight other jockeys ride him in races during his career – H.D. Martin, F. Douglas, J. Simpson, J. Brown, J. (Jimmy) Munro, W. Duncan, R. (Bobby) Lewis and W. Elliott.
 

Whilst Phar Lap’s career never looked back after his Maiden victory and his subsequent spell, young Jack Baker stayed on in Sydney, even winning a Sydney apprentices title of 1929. Due to increasing weight in 1933, he made the decision to return to the beloved town of his birth Armidale, where he rode for his father Frank.


This is a 1952 photograph of Jack and Mollie Baker after Jack won the South Grafton Cup on Veiled Art.
Jack Baker married domestic Mollie (Mary) Bayley in 1937 and he continued riding for a further 19 years until he decided to pull up stumps on life as a jockey in 1952. The then 41-year-old, who had the distinction of never being suspended by stewards in his career, retired from the saddle in a blaze of glory, when he rode a horse called Veiled Art to win two Grafton feature annual races, namely the Hawthorn Handicap (1400m) and the South Grafton Cup (1600m). Veiled Art had won the 1949 Villiers, but a combination of breaking down and having fertility problems as a stallion had led to the entire having over three years away from the roar of the racetrack. Veiled Art’s victories in the Grafton double led Baker to once call the galloper in a newspaper interview reflecting on his life “one of the best horses I rode”.
 

Jack Baker and his daughter Naomi Wood were photographed at "Rosehill", the Armidale property Jack named after the Sydney racetrack where he rode champion Phar Lap to win his Maiden.
Upon retiring from the saddle, Jack Baker went straight into training horses and made a good fist of that. His best success as a trainer was no doubt winning a Tamworth Cup with Bandora in early 1959. He won the big Tamworth double on that day, with his own horse Daurian taking out the Sires Produce. Daurian also “won all the 2YO events” on the North and North West circuit, whilst Bandora went on to win the Scone Guineas, but broke down in doing so.
 
Jack and Mollie named their 26-acre Armidale property “Rosehill” after the track where he had his famous win of 1929. At “Rosehill” Jack and Mollie raised six children and, apart from his thoroughbred interests and in an effort to support his family financially, he also dabbled in farming at the property and spent 24 years as a nightwatchman at the boarders only New England Girls School.

Jack Baker and Gai Waterhouse got to share some time together at a Tamworth Prime Television meeting during the 1990's.
Jack, a man who never owned, or drove, a car, once said he “went 20 years without having a Christmas dinner when a jockey”, yet he had no shortage of functions to attend in his latter years. He always cherished memories of August 7, 1983 when he and his wife Mollie were flown from Armidale as one of 600 invited guests to Sydney’s Hilton Hotel to watch the premiere of the movie Phar Lap at Michael Edgley’s Point Piper mansion. In 1992 he was a special guest of the Moonee Valley Race Club. In 1993 he was guest of the Victorian TAB to the Melbourne Cup where he witnessed live the win of overseas raider Vintage Crop. In 1994 he was made a Life Member of the Armidale Jockey Club – only the fifth person to achieve that honour in the race club’s long history. He was twice a special guest of the Sydney Turf Club at Rosehill – firstly in 1996 and again in 2000 – and had the distinction of having a race named in his honour at the venue to commemorate his attendance.
 

The year is 1993 and Jack Baker and Melbourne jockey Steven King were photographed the day before the famous Melbourne Cup Street Parade.
In a lifetime spent in racing from the onset of his teenage years, Jack Baker once told an interviewer that whilst Phar Lap – the only foal of 14 his mother Entreaty had that could gallop – was the best horse he saw, he had great admiration for four other wonderful gallopers – Beauford, Gloaming, Heroic and Bernborough.
 
Jack and his wife Mollie reared six children – Robert, Michael and Naomi, who still live in Armidale and Margaret (Newcastle), Peter (Griffith) and John (Sydney).
 
When Jack Baker closed his eyes for the last time on July 26, 2000 at the grand age of 89 – on the night of his 63rd wedding anniversary – the last living thread to the Phar Lap jumper that had been knitted over the previous 75 years went with him. Upon his death Jack was survived by his six children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grand-children. Jack once rode a horse called Sheila to victory in Sydney at 100-1 and in an incredible irony another 100-1 chance got home at the races on the night of his passing when ABC television screened a scheduled feature on the great Phar Lap.

This is the cover of the book written by Jack Baker's son Robert, which was released in 2007.
May the story of Jack Baker inspire all budding apprentice jockeys eternally. He came from a humble background and got to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, before becoming a racing celebrity due to being in the right place at the right time as a 17-year-old kid. His love of racing will no doubt live on within his family for generations to come. His son Robert wrote a book entitled The Diary of Phar Lap and released it earlier this year. His widowed daughter Naomi and her son Greg raced a horse that won at Hawkesbury, Gosford, Newcastle and Muswellbrook. Greg also raced a horse on the Picnic circuit for three wins from as many starts. Another of Jack’s sons, Michael, had four rides as an amateur jockey for two wins and two second placings. 
 
Jack Baker and Phar Lap are both gone from this life – but their Rosehill win on April 27, 1929 will never be allowed to be forgotten by future generations, as it is firmly entrenched in the racing history of this country.


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