For Gary Baker, It's All About Helping Friends

Mar 11, 2007 - 10:00 PM

A ubiquitous individual, Gary Baker doesn’t ever seem to take a deep breath. Whether he’s managing a horse show or selecting bulls and running the cattle breeding operation at Dot Smithwick’s Sunnybank Farm (Va.), he never stops working until his head hits the pillow at night, and even then he often awakes to the phone ringing in his ear, another friend calling and asking for his help.

And he wouldn’t ever dream of changing it. Through years of living on the show circuit and breeding and training horses, Baker has developed enough friendships to last any individual several lifetimes.

“One of the most important things in my life are the relationships I’ve formed over the years,” said Baker, who resides in Middleburg, Va. “Thanks to the horses, I have lifelong friends. I don’t have a family, but my friends have become my family.”

Years of showing on the road with the legendary horsewoman Sallie Sexton taught Baker how to adjust to strange environments, new people and fresh experiences. Throughout his travels across the United States, he met and became friends with legendary horsemen such as George Morris, Joe Darby, Pam Baker, Hope Scott, James Blackwell, Tony Workman, Richard Taylor and Dick McDevitt.

“My closest friends now, and always, are the people I’ve been associated with through horses,” said Baker, 65.

“He’s helped me out a lot,” said Tony Workman, who’s been friends with Baker for more than 20 years and has shown many of his horses. “I remember meeting Gary right after I moved to the [Virginia] area. He was working as a steward at a horse show, and my grounds person at my new job had bolted on me. I had all these horses to show, and the judge was screaming and yelling at me because I couldn’t get the horses in the ring fast enough. Gary came to my rescue by standing up for me.”

In more ways than one, Baker has penetrated the horse world with his presence. Over the past 30 years, he’s bred eight horses who later went on to win AHSA/USEF Horse of the Year titles in the breeding and performance divisions, including: Royal Secret, Gala, Bank Roll, Midnight Tango, Night Music, Obey, Innisfree (later named Street Wise) and Rosecroft Wise Guy. He’s also served in various capacities over the years on a number of horse-related boards and committees.

“He’s done more work for the horse world than almost anyone I know,” said Pam Baker, owner of Hillcrest Farms (Bealeton, Va.). “Gary’s got a ‘sticktoitedness’ that you don’t often see in people. He’s not afraid to have a voice, and he’ll stand up and speak his mind because he’s not intimidated by anyone or anything, although sometimes I have to tell him to save his bullets!”

A Strange Recipe
Growing up on the Susquehanna River in Port Deposit, Md., Gary’s curiosity about horses grew out of the time he spent on his grandfather’s nearby farm. Barely big enough to pull the bridle over their ears, Gary rode his grandfather’s work horses and helped to drag firewood and plow the fields. Other times he would walk to the nearby summer camp and ask to ride the horses turned out in the field during the off-season.

When his parents relocated to Washington, D.C., Gary moved his horse to a local stable, Oak Knoll Farm, where he met Bobbie Gardner. Gardner was a staunch competitor at the local horse shows, and Gary soon found himself caught up in the excitement of waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. on the weekends to load his horse on a van. Quick to make friends during his weekend outings, one of Gary’s first horse show acquaintances was the renowned hunter rider, Joe Darby.

“Bobbie rode in a couple of ladies timber races and Joe, he needed to do whatever everyone else did, so he decided to ride in a timber race too,” recalled Gary with a dry laugh. “In his first race he fell.”

And it was Darby’s fall during that first timber race, a trip to the hospital and a ladle of guilt that was the recipe for how Gary started working for Sexton.

“Joe told me that since I was the one who convinced him to race that I was responsible for his broken collarbone. When he got out of the hospital, he asked me to help him at a couple of horse shows,” said Gary. “It was sort of a joke, but I went with him anyway.”

About two months later, Gary was fulfilling his promise at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair (Pa.) when Sexton approached Darby and asked him to come ride for her.

“He was terrified of her,” recalled Gary. “And Joe said, ‘You’ll have to talk to my manager.’ I said ‘Who is that?’ and he said, ‘That’s you!’ So I thought the whole thing was a joke, but the next day Sallie came up behind me and asked if I was Gary Baker. I turned around and there she was staring at me. Well, one thing led to another, and I agreed that the two of us would go to Ohio to work for her.”

Over the years that followed, Gary and Sexton developed a relationship that kept him coming back for more. Packing up and going to Ohio was never an easy task, for his long-term employment with Jefferson Federal Bank provided him with job security and a steady paycheck. But despite the perks of corporate employment, Gary left his banking job on three occasions to return to the horse show circuit.

“Working for Sallie took me to a different level,” reminisced Gary. “Before working for her, I had gone to basically Maryland and Virginia shows–one-day shows where you’d get up at 3 or 4 a.m., drive to the show, compete all day, go home and then go to work the next morning–but this was a different thing. These were four- and five-day big-name shows all over the country where there was no such thing as an ‘easy’ horse show.”

And while the shows may have attracted the highest caliber horses and top-notch riders, they were different, according to Gary, than the A-rated shows of today. Instead of everyone rushing from ring to ring with a can of peanuts or a quick greasy hamburger from the food stand for lunch, horse show management used to actually stop the show and serve people a mid-day meal.

“There’d be these big silver bowls of potato salad, shrimp, lobster and everything imaginable. It was just a different way of life then,” Gary recalled. And while some horse shows, like the Middleburg Classic (Va.) and the Washington International (D.C.), try to preserve that tradition, Gary said that many times show management is too caught up with trying to cram as many classes as possible into one day.

As former manager of the Commonwealth Park shows (now HITS Culpeper, Va.) and current manager of the Loudoun Benefit (Va.) and Boumi Temple Mounted Patrol (Md.), Gary’s endured years of experience figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

“I enjoy going to the horse shows and just trying to put on a good show. So many shows take advantage of exhibitors financially like not allowing scratches the day of competition. I don’t charge a scratch fee. When people enter a horse show, their intention is they want to come, and when they don’t come they usually have a pretty good reason. I don’t think they should be penalized, because as a manager, you want them to come again,” he insisted.

The first show Gary ever managed is a show he still manages today–Loudoun. After finally deciding to quit his job at the bank for good, Gary moved to Sunnybank Farm where he worked for S.H.R. Fred, whose daughter, Dot Smithwick, ran the Loudoun show.

“Dot asked me to judge Loudoun, and after I judged it that year, I made suggestions about how they could improve the show. The next year, they asked me to manage it, and I’ve been managing it ever since,” noted Gary.

“Loudoun was the first horse show I ever took a group of my kids to,” said Pam, who’s been attending the show for more than 35 years. “It’s not your usual generic show that nickel and dimes the exhibitor. Gary’s shows are great because he cares so much about the exhibitor and really wants them to have a good time.”

In The Name Of Change
“Things weren’t as sophisticated then as they are today,” said Gary, recalling the days when he first started working at horse shows.

Now, between 80 and 90 percent of the exhibitors are with a trainer, according to Gary, and that didn’t used to be the case. “Loads of parents came and brought their own children to the horse shows and did things themselves–the children took care of their own ponies, a lot of them evenbraided their own ponies.”

The disappearance of and overall lack of genuine horsemanship among today’s young riders is something Gary observes too. “I think it’s all in the name of change, and the question is, ‘Are we better or not better?’ We’re not developing people as horsemen as we once did. I think of equitation classes as being a test of the horse not of the rider because at the higher level, you need a perfect horse to be able to do everything. The riders are so stiff today, and I think many of them lack in style,” said Gary perspicaciously.

But the tentacles of progress reach farther than just the style and position of the riders. Perhaps the “assembly line production” of today’s young riders is in part due to the change in course design over the years.

“We’ve gotten much more sophisticated as far as the construction of the courses and the measuring of lines. Before we just dropped the fences wherever the wagon stopped–but we had outside courses then. People rode more off of their eye, and you could see them making more adjustments to their horses or ponies, whereas today the good ones are pretty steady all around,” described Gary. “They’re not riding lines that have 20 or 25 strides in between them. Now courses usually have lines that are only a maximum of six or seven strides.”

As a judge, a horseman and a show manager, Gary has witnessed first hand some of the detrimental changes affecting U.S. horse sports over the past three decades. And while he used to enjoy judging a great deal, Gary now prefers to pass judgment from the sidelines as opposed to the judge’s box.

“Judging today, the result is based on what a horse does wrong as opposed to what it does correctly. If you have a horse that’s a wonderful jumper, and he makes one little mistake, and you decide to let him win that class over one that meets every jump the same but is just a mediocre jumper, everyone has a fit today because they can only see the things that the horses do wrong,” explained Gary. “Not many people see the real quality in a lot of horses in terms of their jump and the way they move around the course. I think that it’s ruining the game in a way.”

Off And Running
When he’s not solidifying plans for his next horse show, or tending to the cattle at Sunnybank Farm or throwing his leg over a horse, Gary is often out running errands for other people–picking up a friend’s mail or bringing a warm meal to an old acquaintance in Winchester, Va. “My life is taking care of my friends,” said Gary. “I try to stay busy because there’s always things to do.”

Gary currently serves on the Maryland Horse Show Association as a lifetime honorary director, is on the board of the Virginia Horse Shows Association, serves as secretary treasurer of the Virginia Steeplechase Association, is president of the National Hunter/Jumper Association, is U.S. Equestrian Federation Zone 3 chairman, chairman of the Virginia Fall Races and the Piedmont Point-to-Point (Va.), as well as a former member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Hunter Committee.

When asked what contributions he feels he’s made to the horse industry through his dedication to the various committees, he replied, “I feel that I’ve helped establish and maintain rules for a level playing field. I try to make sure that all sides of an issue are heard, and I’m not afraid to get up and argue over something if I find it worth arguing over.”

This year, for all of his hard work and contributions to horse sports, the USEF awarded Gary a Pegasus Medal of Honor, given each year to individuals who have exhibited outstanding service to horses and the sport, and who, through their dedication, have attracted people to the sport and contributed to horse sport by advancing its popularity.

“I’m really glad he got the award because he’s the kind of person who does things other people don’t like to do,” said Workman, who serves on the USEF Zone 3 Committee with Gary. “His opinion never changes–he’ll dig his heels in even if people disagree. Not many people are like that.”

Pam had a similar sentiment. “Often people like him, those who don’t go with the flow, don’t get what they deserve. He’s done a lot for the horse industry and whether you agree with him or not, he’s got integrity. If he believes in something, he devotes a tremendous amount of energy to it,” she said.

Gary Baker’s commitment to horses and horse sports goes deeper than just his committee service. He also breeds Thoroughbreds, section B Welsh ponies and Welsh-Thoroughbred crosses.

“I like horses that have a natural balance standing and moving,” explained Baker. “For me, a horse’s head, neck and shoulders are as important as everything else because that’s what they use for balance.”

And while his ponies have won everywhere from the Upperville Colt and Horse Show (Va.) to Devon (Pa.), Baker’s real passion is the racetrack.

“The steeplechase horses provide me with a lot of thrills,” said Baker, whose all-time favorites include Quixotic (a horse he purchased) who ran third in the 1979 Colonial Cup (S.C.); Glyn, a timber horse who won five races his first year of racing with Baker’s best friend, Don Yovanovich, in the irons; and Double Redouble, also a timber horse that Baker purchased from Jack Fisher.

Ridden by a handful of other jockeys at Sunnybank before pairing with Julie Gomena, Double Redouble instantly clicked with his new rider. Together the pair won practically every race they entered, including the Bowman Bowl (Va.) in 2002, his final year of racing.

“Showing horses today is a real expensive thing,” said Gary Baker. “But I show dogs too, and I just had a dog come back from Florida, and I hate to think what that’s going to cost me!”

For years Baker bred and showed Doberman Pinschers, but as his parents got older and were no longer able to take care of them, he took a hiatus from dog breeding to concentrate on the horses.

But in 1997, Baker bought his first Norwich terrier and resumed breeding. “They’re much smaller and more manageable,” said Baker about the 12-pound dogs (the smallest of the terrier breed). “If you go away and have someone pop in and feed them, they’re OK.”

With three currently at home and three he co-owns, there’s almost always a litter of puppies tumbling around. And while the Doberman puppies he used to sell would bring in between $350 and $400, the terriers are on a different level and bring in $2,500 apiece!

“Showing dogs, just like horses, is a highly competitive sport with top professionals,” explained Baker. “Even though you think it’s just walking around the ring with the dog, just the way they hold onto the leash, if you have a dog that throws one leg out, they can camouflage it. It’s amazing. The way they stack the dogs is like going into a conformation model class at a horse show–how you stand one up is a real art.

Category: Horse Shows

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