On Wednesday, Charlton Baker notched his fourth win of the ultra-competitive Saratoga Race Course meet, pushing his strike rate to 29 percent from a total of 14 runners. For more than a decade, Saratoga has been a focal point on Baker’s calendar, and his barn has consistently performed well going back to the early days of his training career when he first ventured from hard-scrabble Finger Lakes racetrack near Rochester, N.Y., into the land of the giants at the Spa.
With each passing year, the Baker barn looks more and more like one of those giants.
In 2016, the Jamaica native reached new heights with 10 wins at Saratoga, while Joking provided not only the first graded stakes victory of his career in June at Belmont Park, but also his first triumph at racing’s highest level in winning the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes in October at Belmont.
Joking is emblematic of Baker’s career climb: he was a blue-collar horse, claimed for Baker’s own account for $20,000 as a 5-year-old in 2014, and once in the barn he was hardly a meteor. Instead, it was a long road of hard work before the bay gelding got into a groove and rose through the ranks, step by step, over four races in 2016. First he won an allowance race, then a stakes race, followed by Baker’s first graded score in the Grade 2 True North Stakes, and finally the top-level Vosburgh.
“I always admired his sire, Distorted Humor, and had never trained one until I was able to claim Joking,” said Baker, 51. “I just got to know [Joking] more and more and figured out what he liked and didn’t like, dealt with some issues, and he got better, little by little, until last year he was probably as good as he could be.
“I had definitely been looking for a horse like him for many years. My clients don’t have horses bred like him, so you are looking for diamonds in the rough. When you’re claiming, you have to be very lucky to come up with a horse like him. Most of the time, you claim them and they are what they are, you try to win a few races and then move them on. To claim one who turns out like him, it’s very, very rare. You are always looking and hoping but I had been training a lot of years before I was lucky enough to find him.”
Joking’s path veered off course after the Vosburgh. He was preentered and shipped west for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint and would have been Baker’s first Breeders’ Cup starter, but the gelding came down with pneumonia and not only missed the race, but he spent more than a month in a clinic, at times in serious condition.
Now 8 years old, Joking has fully recovered and has been training for a comeback. He has not yet logged an official workout, but Baker said he could be ready to race late this year. By Jan. 1, Joking will be a 9-year-old, but Baker has some notable history combating long layoffs and Father Time.
In particular, his work with the New York-bred gelding Moonlight Song has few parallels. Once a flashy yearling colt at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings — his owner and breeder Albert Fried Jr. was content to buy him back on a final bid of $900,000 — a variety of issues kept the horse out of action for years until he was turned over to Baker as a gelding with one last chance to make the races. At age 5 in February 2012, he finally debuted ... and promptly won his first two starts.
Nearly two years later, Moonlight Song became a stakes winner in January 2014 and ended his 7-year-old season with a victory in the Hudson Handicap on New York-bred Showcase Day that fall, but he would not be seen again until Saratoga the next summer, at age 8. Despite nine months away, he prevailed right off the bat at the Spa in the John Morrissey Stakes.
A suspensory issue put Moonlight Song right back on the shelf.
At age 9 last July, Moonlight Song returned to defend the John Morrissey title. Off the one-year layoff, he went straight to the front and held on gallantly to prevail again by three-quarters of a length. He would never run again, the suspensory too iffy for Baker and Fried to want to take any chances, and he retired on an incredible streak of three stakes wins spread out over 21 months.
“Charlie did an amazing job with Moonlight Song, who had problems all the way along but Charlie knew when he needed to rest and when he could press on, and the horse responded for him,” said Jenny Carpenter, Fried’s manager at Buttonwood Farm in the Hudson Valley. “As much as the horse loved to race, we finally reached a point where we all thought it was time to retire him. He was training like his old self but that suspensory had some filling and Charlie recommended that we stop on him, and we all agreed that it was best to retire him. Other trainers would have kicked on until he had a serious problem.
“Now, Moonlight Song has started his second career and is totally sound and doing great. He will be doing local shows with one of the girls who used to ride him here at Buttonwood.”
The son of a trainer and grandson of a jockey, Baker moved with his family from Jamaica to Brooklyn as a teenager and eventually followed his father to Finger Lakes. Besides working for his dad, Baker said the time he spent in the shedrow of leading Finger Lakes trainer Mike Ferraro was invaluable.
These days, Baker is primarily focused on the NYRA circuit, but he still keeps a string of horses at Finger Lakes, where he and Ferraro are stabled next to each other.
“I have really enjoyed watching Charlie’s success,” Ferraro said. “When he worked for me, he was pretty young and he always did things the right way. It looked to me like if he was going to go into training, he would do well because he always did things properly. He paid attention to all the details and you can see that in how well he has done, he is so dedicated to the business and right away, horses always seem to improve when they come into his barn.”