BY DANNY POWER
*Long-time Melbourne racing journalist & friend of Murray Baker’s.
When Murray Baker confided to a few friends last spring that he was planning to retire from training after the Sydney autumn carnival, most of us gave it little thought … most of us had heard the “I think I’ll give it away soon” talk before.
Even son Bjorn, now an established top-five trainer in Sydney, scoffed at the suggestion.
“He’ll get another good horse that he can bring to Aussie, and he’ll forget he ever said it,” Bjorn said. “Besides, what’s he going to do, he’s a horse trainer and horse trainers don’t retire.”
We were wrong. At last, Murray Baker has decided he’s found a place to hang the binoculars.
Murray Baker, 75, and recovering from a knee replacement that “hasn’t worked that well” confirmed his decision to retire with an email to his owners, past and present.
In true Baker style, it was simple, understated and without fanfare: It read:
I wish to advise you that I am retiring on the 30th April 2022.
It has been a long and enjoyable road since I started with Harry Greene at the old Greenmeadows Napier Track in 1958. During this time, I have been fortunate to have had some very good horses along the way, met a lot of marvelous people and had a lot of fun times.
Andrew Forsman will take over training in his own right on the 1st May 2022 with a wealth of experience behind him having worked for and with me over the past 18 years. I am sure you will support him as you have supported me over the years.
Best wishes in racing for the future and I hope the winners keep coming.
What that retirement letter didn’t tell is the story of a young “town” boy from Napier with a talent for cricket and no horse experience. A boy who, after school, potted around the stables of the local top trainer Harry Greene before taking a part-time job in 1958. Soon after he was legged aboard his first horse, a filly named Embrace who Baker remembers was a half-sister to Light Fingers. Baker has a sharp memory for the little things of life.
It was Greene’s horsemanship and interest in his young employee that sparked an urge in Baker not to follow his father into the corporate world of business, but to take a path with thoroughbreds that has led him into New Zealand Racing’s Hall of Fame (and maybe a slot in the Australian one as well), a record-breaking trainer on both sides of the Tasman and the tag of “racing legend”.
Baker’s 22 Group One wins (including those in partnership with Andrew Forsman and Bjorn) in Australia is the most by a New Zealand-based trainer. When The Chosen One powered away with the Thorndon Mile (1600m) at Trentham last week, Baker’s career tally is an elite 56, with the prospect of an addition during the Sydney autumn carnival, although Baker will be home watching, and winning, from afar.
It is Baker’s willingness to campaign for the better prizemoney in Australia that sets him apart from most New Zealand trainers bar a handful of others that includes his close mates John Wheeler and the late Laurie Laxon.
Baker’s biggest thrills in racing come from his regular sojourns to Australia, which began in the mid-1980s.
“Winning five Australian Derbys in Sydney and finishing second twice is probably my greatest achievement,” he said when reflecting on his career.
“Not winning a Melbourne Cup was one regret, although in my time the race changed a lot, it became more international and a lot harder for a New Zealand trainer, or even an Aussie, to win.”
Even so, Baker went close, finishing second with The Phantom in 1990— “although he should have won when fourth in 1989 after being knocked down.” Perhaps, the biggest regret was Mongolian Khan, who gave the champion trainer a high when he won the 2015 Caulfield Cup, but a shattering low when he suffered a life-threatening colitis attack leading into the Melbourne Cup when the race, according to Baker, was at his mercy.
However, Baker took the setback in his stride, sparing his thoughts for the horse’s survival than his own disappointment; “that’s racing,” was all he would offer those that came by to console him.
Dundeel, a six-time Group One winner in Australia, is the standout best horse Baker has trained, ahead of The Phantom.
Baker admits it is doubtful he would be retiring if there wasn’t someone capable to hand the reins to. That person is Andrew Forsman who has been with him for 18 years, more than half of them in a training partnership that began in 2012.
“Andrew has been wanting to go on his own, so this gives him that chance. He’s ready,” Baker said.
“Andrew has been dealing with the owners and attending the races for the stable for a while now, so I don’t see the transition being a problem. He’s learned a lot, come a long way, and I hope something has rubbed off from me in the way he trains.”
I first met Murray Baker in 1988. I was working for the Melbourne Herald and I approached him at Flemington trackwork one morning as he watched The Phantom, who was in Melbourne for the Victoria Derby, doing some pacework.
He was evasive, but at the same time endearing and very interesting to talk to. We soon became great mates. The Phantom didn’t make it to the Derby after suffering an illness, but the gelding gave Baker a taste of Australian racing that he found addictive. He once told me: “I get withdrawal symptoms when I can’t find one to take over there for the big races.”
Often, usually sometime in June, my phone would ring with a declaration before a greeting: “I’ve got one, a traveller.” You could feel the excitement in his voice that he had a horse that could be a spring contender.
The next phone call he would make would be to the front desk at the Footscray Motor Inn, perched high on the hill not far from Flemington. He’s been staying there since 1988 and even at the height of the Melbourne Show in late September when rooms would be scarce, there always has been a room for Mr. Baker from New Zealand. They say there should be a M P Baker statue, near the door to the bar.
Baker has tremendous affection for his staff, and they love him. He trusts them explicitly, often leaving them to prepare horses for major assignments in the spring and the autumn while he travels back and forth from New Zealand. It’s his system and it works.
Baker trained his first winner in 1978 from stables in Woodville. His first good horse was Sir Vigilant, who won the 1985 Gr.2 Wellington Derby and Gr.1 New Zealand St Leger. Two years later, he won his first Australian feature race when (Our) Palliser won the Gr.2 Tulloch Stakes at Rosehill, a race he’s won three times.
That first Aussie win was followed with a mammoth offer for the gelding from Lloyd Williams, giving Baker a taste of a successful trade, an art that most New Zealand trainers have on their CV, although there are few better at the deal that MP Baker.
At Woodville, it was legendary trainers Eric Ropiha and Noel Eales that were the biggest influence on Baker’s training career.
However, the most important progression in his career came when he switched from Woodville to Cambridge in 2000. The move gave him access to better horses, especially sourced from the local studs, and a broader church of owners.
The list of outstanding horses to race for Baker is a Who’s Who of New Zealand racing, headed by Dundeel, who is now a leading stallion, and followed by The Phantom, Eagle Eye, Dowry, Prized Gem, Nom du Jeu, Harris Tweed, Lion Tamer, Dundeel, Mongolian Khan, Turn Me Loose, Jon Snow, Bonneval, The Chosen One, and Quick Thinker.
The announcement of Baker’s retirement sparked a flood of well-wishers on social media.
When asked how he will spend his retirement, Baker said, “I’ll probably get bored! Michael Moran (from Windsor Park Stud) rang me and said that I should take a lesson from what Bart Cummings said to Darren Beadman and get a second opinion.”
And then he added, “We have a new house being built that Marianne has been heavily involved in designing. We are looking forward to moving in soon, and we have looked at places in Napier, so getting a house with a nice ocean view could be on the cards.
“Of course, when it’s suitable we’d like to get back to Europe. I love to travel, and I’m sure there are some new adventures ahead.”
See you in Melbourne, Murray. Your Melbourne chauffeur will have the car polished and a cold beer in the boot.