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New Zealand Racing News
Thursday, April 13 2017

"Maestro Murray." That was racecaller Darren Flindell's memorable line as Bonneval crossed the line well clear of her rivals in last Saturday's Australian Oaks at Randwick, bringing up Kiwi trainer Murray Baker's 20th Group One win in Australia.

Baker, who trains in partnership with Andrew Forsman, had 10 minutes earlier celebrated Group One success with Charmont winning the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders' Stakes at Te Rapa.

And Bonneval brought up a Classic double in Sydney for Baker, after Jon Snow had won the Gr.1 Australian Derby seven days earlier, a feat that had only once been achieved in the preceding 37 years - by legendary trainer Clarry Connors with his champion filly Research in 1989.

So, Maestro Murray seemed a fitting description.

But it was a tag that didn't sit well with the trainer himself. He felt a bit embarrassed by it, when reflecting this week.

"I just want to be known as Murray Baker," he said.

There's nothing pretentious about Baker, from the old runabout he drives to his stables twice a day, to the way he deflects praise for his 40 years of remarkable achievement in racing towards his star racehorses in preference to accepting any personal accolades.

A Sydney Morning Herald article in the leadup to the Oaks compared Baker's approach to that of the late Australian training great Bart Cummings.

Again, Baker won't hear of it, dismissing any suggestion of that notion.

He's just Murray Baker, a now veteran trainer who sparked his racing passion by working for Napier trainer Harry Greene as a 12-year-old before school at the now defunct Greenmeadows Racecourse and who now enjoys one of his great pleasures from the dawn trackwork chinwags with an upbeat band of young trainers at the Cambridge gap.

"I just enjoy what I do. I love getting up in the morning and coming down to the stables and being around the horses and horsepeople here," he says.

"We've got a lot of excellent young trainers here at Cambridge and some very good established trainers as well. I've met some good buggers over the years."

It was back in the late 1950s that Baker would ride his bike or his pony to Greene's stables, where he would complete stable chores and ride pacework.

"Mr Greene was a good trainer - trained a lot of winners - and he was a good jumping trainer as well. I learnt a lot from him."

As Baker recalls all the chapters of his career, he reveals an uncanny knack of remembering all the good horses he has been associated with, along with their breeding.

The first horse he rode in trackwork was Embrace, a stakes-performed half-brother to Bart Cummings' champion filly and Melbourne Cup-winning mare Light Fingers.

And it was the same family that provided Baker with his first stakes winner some years later, when Vizier defeated Uncle Remus to win the Listed Jackson Stakes (now the Ag Challenge Stakes) at Wanganui in 1979.

But before then Baker had a bright cricket career to focus on.

A leg spin bowler and middle order batsman, he made his first-class debut for Central Districts as a 20-year-old and was part of the side which won the Plunket Shield in both 1966-67 and 1967-68, playing alongside a team chock-full of test greats, such as Bevan Congdon and Vic Pollard.

He followed his career to England, playing professionally in the Huddersfield League and indulging his great love of travel.

It was during a break from his job as a pipeliner in Luxembourg that he met his Swedish wife Maryanne in Germany and the pair still regularly make trips to exotic destinations during holiday breaks from the stable.

Baker returned to New Zealand and worked for Ray Cotter at Te Rapa - and again here he reels off a string of Cotter's best gallopers and their breeding, such as Cox Plate winner Summer Regent, by Summertime.

After a brief stint in hospitality, graduating to hotel manager, Baker headed to Awapuni to begin his training career before quickly relocating to Woodville, where he began to make his mark.

"I couldn't get the horses out of my system," he says.

"Woodville was a traditional great training centre, with many top trainers. When I got there Eric Ropiha and Noel Eales were producing a lot of star horses.

"I have just lived racing for so long now. And it does bring back great memories talking about it. I've seen a lot of change."

Since taking his trainer's licence out in the 1978-79 season, Baker has won more than 1370 races in New Zealand, plus made his mark as a big-race trainer in Australia through gallopers the quality of Eagle Eye, The Phantom, Dowry, Prized Gem, Nom du Jeu, Harris Tweed, Lion Tamer, Dundeel, Mongolian Khan, Turn Me Loose and his current stars Jon Snow and Bonneval.

"Dundeel was just magic. He's the only horse to win those four Group One three-year-old races in Sydney, the Spring Champion Stakes, the Randwick Guineas, Rosehill Guineas and Australian Derby."

Baker and his great mate John Wheeler, whose record of 19 Australian wins for a New Zealand-based trainer he eclipsed last weekend, have both won Group One races in four Australian states; Baker having produced Dowry to win the South Australian Oaks and Prized Gem to win the Brisbane Cup.

"I just love going to Australia. The atmosphere is always electric and there's always great prizemoney to chase," Baker says.

"That's what makes the game in Australia is prizemoney and that's what we need to get right in New Zealand. Get that right and everything else will follow. You get people wanting to race horses, which encourages breeding and horses will be retained here to race. Stakes have to rise."

Baker takes great satisfaction from establishing strong partnerships with star jockeys, from Noel Harris as he was making his way through the training ranks to Opie Bosson, James McDonald and Matthew Cameron in more recent years.

He has also nurtured great training talent as well, through current training partner Andrew Forsman and his predecessor, Baker's son Bjorn, who is now one of the leading trainers in Sydney.

"Bjorn has done well. He went over there with two horses. One was a bleeder and the other was an equine pedestrian. I didn't want to make it too easy on him," Baker quips.

"He's made his own way to the top. He runs a good ship there."

Baker admits there has been times when he has battled, recalling that when Sir Vigilant won the 1985 Wellington Derby at Trentham, he told Maryanne that the result was sure to bring in much-needed business for the stable. "We didn't get another horse until eight months later."

But he has also identified his edge and has capitalised on it most noticeably in the past few years - New Zealand-bred staying three-year-olds.

"We've always got a show in staying races in Australia because we've got depth with those horses here. We try and identify horses that will develop into good three-year-old stayers and work from there," Baker said.

"We like to give them time. The real [prizemoney] action is with an autumn three-year-old and with those we take our time and develop them properly."

"New Zealand horses, in particular our stayers, are every bit as good as Australia's best," Baker said. "The key to winning over there is trainers working out what they've got, assess their horses' potential and get them there when they're on the way up."
Posted by: Racing Desk AT 04:28 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
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