LIFE couldn’t get any better for George Baker two years ago. He’d just won the St Leger on the unheralded Harbour Law to the acclaim of his fellow riders who knew the sacrifices that he’d made – and he was about to become a father for the first time.
Fast forward six months and the same jockeys, and friends, who’d been congratulating Baker on his landmark win were consoling his traumatised family after he suffered life-threatening head injuries, including bleeding on the brain, when his horse fell during an official race on the frozen lake at the Swiss resort of St Moritz.
Airlifted to hospital where his condition took a terrifying turn for the worse, and then flown back to Britain by air ambulance to continue his recovery, the 36-year-old is the first to realise – albeit belatedly – that the outcome could have been much worse. Some don’t get a second chance.
His lingering regret, however, is that his daughter Isabella, born just a month after the emotional St Leger win as Laura Mongan became the first female trainer to saddle the winner of the world’s oldest Classic, would never see her father ride, hence his roller-coaster memoir Taking My Time.
Encouraged by his wife Nicola who, in every respect, is the unsung heroine of the book as she nursed her husband back to health while looking after their new baby, Baker hopes – in time – that his daughter will read about her father’s achievements with glowing pride.
“Isabella is the reason I did the book,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “She will never get to see me ride – my balance will never be good enough for me to return to the saddle – but I wanted her to know what her Dad did for a living.”
Yet, while the Baker family’s extraordinary perseverance in the face of adversity will inspire other riders, and sportsmen, facing a similar predicament, it’s also a story of sacrifice which chronicles the life, and daily existence, of a top-class jockey.
And few had to give up more than Baker who was driven by a single-minded determination illustrated by a conversation about careers at a school when he told his teacher: “I’m going to be a jockey and I don’t care what you told me.”
Every spare moment was spent riding and the aspiring jockey was already more proficient than most when, as a callow 16-year-old, he enrolled at Doncaster’s Northern Racing College. He made an instant impression. “This lad could have a bright future,” said his tutor’s report.
His first ride followed in June 1999 and Baker’s landmark first winner came aboard Beauchamp Magic at Wolverhampton six months later. He was up and running and, with youthful exuberance, travelled anywhere – and everywhere – from his Wiltshire home in the search of rides and opportunities.
An early supporter was the late Patrick Haslam who trained at Middleham. “An old-school trainer who wanted everything done in a certain a way,” noted Baker in his book that he wrote in collaboration with the racing writer Tom Peacock. “I’d describe him as authoritarian rather than particularly warm, and you had to be on your A-game with him.”
Yet, while the long travelling became more of a hardship as his career progressed, and the motorways became ever more congested, a fall from a horse in the paddock at Goodwood left Baker sidelined for eight long months. In that time, he had a sudden growth spurt that left him touching six foot – taller than the legendary Lester Piggott – and leading a starvation existence just to make the 8st 9lb weight and keep his fledgling career on the road.
“For me, it was harder than most because I was a big lad trying to ride light weights and keep everyone happy,” he reflects. “I became quite regimented about it later in my career. When you get older, you get a little more sensible.”
It meant Baker eventually deciding to ride at a minimum weight of nine stone. It meant adjusting his diet so he ate more healthily and more regularly so he didn’t have to lose so much weight on racedays. And it meant regularly sacrificing nights out with his partner who became accustomed to going alone to the weddings of friends.
They’re the hidden sacrifices that racegoers, say Baker, don’t always appreciate. And then there was the near-comedy on the morning of the 2016 St Leger when he had “perfectly doable” 3.5lb to lose and the hotel receptionist insisted that he checked out by 10am. “I’m sorry but we’re really busy. It’s St Leger day,” she told him. “Funnily enough, I know that,” replied the deadpan jockey who decamped to a nearby gym and made use of its treadmill.
“If I’d told her (hotel receptionist) that I needed the room so badly because I wanted to sit and sweat in the bath, I’m pretty sure she would have thought I was a complete lunatic.”
In the St Leger, which saw the favourite Idaho stumble and unseat its rider, Baker was almost in shock when Harbour Law passed the post and his first reaction was to call his wife, watching on television, to check she had not gone into labour prematurely.
And then the trauma of St Moritz when Baker’s mount Boomerang Bob put a foot through the snow-covered ice and broke his leg at a point where there was a weakness in the track.
He’s fortunate that all he can remember is making progress down the back straight “which is where the lights go out”. Yet, for his wife, and friends like Guiseley-born jump jockey Dominic Elsworth whose career had also been cut short by a serious head injury, it was no consolation as they came to terms with the dramatic changes in behaviour, and mood swings, associated with post-traumatic amnesia and bleeding on the brain.
Here salvation came in the form of world-leading medical care, the benevolence of the Injured Jockeys Fund and the support of racing as Baker, with over 1,300 wins to his name, faced his greatest struggle – learning to walk and lead a normal life. He likened it to a race. For a time, he couldn’t be entrusted with a mobile phone – or his young daughter – as he drove nurses to exasperation. His wife’s account in the book is agonising.
And, while he’s a slightly changed person, he’s now become an acclaimed TV pundit and is soon to become the agent to top-class jockeys James Doyle and William Buick who ride for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation.
“It can be quite a humbling experience when you realise how many people are there to help you, racing is one big family” adds George Baker who was present at this month’s St Leger. “I will never be as I was before physically. My balance is still pretty poor, and I’m still working at it, but I hope my story helps people who have gone through similar experiences.”
And make young Isabella proud of her father, his riding and the fact that he won his most importance race – living to tell the tale.
George Baker: My Autobiography. Taking My Time is published by Racing Post Books, price £20.
Why time is still the greatest healer
FOR A jockey who lived life at 100mph, and who accumulated big race success in the latter stages of a career tragically cut short by injury, George Baker now believes the adage that ‘time is a great healer’.
He was lying battered and bruised in a Swiss hospital bed when he had one of the most profound conversations of his life.
“How are you feeling?” asked the nurse to the patient universally known in racing as the ‘head waiter’ because of his height.
“Aren’t I doing well?” mumbled Baker as he drifted in and out of consciousness. “Time’s a massive healer.
“It had been one day since the accident which was going to alter my life forever, and the first time I had actually spoken to anyone.”