As Bjorn Baker racked up his 100th winner for the season last week for a third straight year, his mind briefly drifted back to 2011 when he arrived in Sydney with a freshly minted trainer’s licence and just two boxes at Warwick Farm.
After a long and fruitful apprenticeship with his father Murray, a New Zealand Hall Of Fame trainer, Baker decided the time was right to set out on his own and returned to Sydney where he’d lived a decade earlier as a racegoer rather than a trainer.
He knew the challenge to establish himself would be stiff. Just how difficult quickly became apparent.
“The two horses, they both had their debut [for the stable] at Newcastle,” Baker recalls.
“The first one finished 100 metres last and I thought the second one can’t get any worse, and she finished 200 metres last. It was pretty tough going and my wife and family were yet to move over.
“From there you have to get up the next morning. At that stage I was doing all the work myself. You either go harder or go home and thankfully I worked harder and I was able to get owners.”
Baker’s long and winding road from mucking out his father’s stables in Woodville, to his standing as one of Sydney’s premier trainers is as unusual as it has been successful.
He was up at 5am most mornings as a youngster, often crawling back into bed once he’d finished helping out his dad.
Woodville was a proud horse racing town having produced 1964 Melbourne Cup winner Polo Prince, but Baker admits his initial love was cricket.
Yet those early days instilled a love and knowledge of horseflesh that has led him to Warwick Farm.
Baker wanted to be a vet, but would have had to attend university in Palmerston North where he’d spent his high school years and he badly wanted to leave the town.
Instead he fell into pharmacy and upon graduating, travelled the world pursuing his profession.
He met his future wife Andrea in Sydney where he was a member of the Sydney Turf Club and a regular race goer, and then spent four years in Europe where he did voluntary work with Irish Hall Of Fame trainer John Oxx.
At 30 years of age Baker decided it was time to forgo pharmacy and try his hand at horse training. Murray had moved to Cambridge by that stage and struck up a super successful partnership with his father, training horses such as Nom Du Jeu, Harris Tweed and Lion Tamer.
Baker took Nom Du Jeu to Sydney in 2008 and he won the Australian Derby as a 40-1 shot. It planted a seed which ultimately led to Baker breaking out on his own.
“He’s probably a lot of the reason why I’m in Australia now because it gave us a lot of belief, and at that stage my father hadn’t had a big winner in Australia for a long time,” Baker said.
“If I wanted to be involved and have a future in the game I knew it was only going to be in Australia. I really had to make it work.
“I said to him [Murray] how about we stay in partnership when I initially came over. He said, ‘Son, if you do it you’re on your own’.
“That was probably the best thing he did because it meant I really had to come over, attack myself, get my own client base.”
In late 2013, a Testa Rossa colt by the name of Unencumbered put Baker firmly on the map.
Unencumbered, partnered by talented young jockey Nathan Berry, went on a superb run culminating in winning the $2 million Magic Millions in January of 2014.
Less than four months later, Berry succumbed to an acute form of epilipsy aged just 23 and the Sydney racing community was plunged into mourning.
“In a roundabout way, together, it was the big win that Nathan and I needed at the time,” Baker said.
“It was pretty sad, he’s an absolute champion bloke Nathan, I was even looking at photos the other day, he’s just an absolute gentleman, he knew all the staff, he’s a great team player. He would’ve gone on to do great things.”
Baker’s operation has now expanded to 82 boxes at Warwick Farm, and he is a group 1-winning trainer in his own right thanks to Music Magnate’s Doomben 10,000 win in 2016.
“One of the keys is I’ve been able to buy and source good horses myself,” Baker said.
“The first yearling I bought was a horse called Twilight Royale that won the VRC Sires Produce and then she won the Inglis Nursery and then she got sold for good money as a broodmare.
“From there I was able to buy Unencumbered, he’s a Testa Rossa colt, and then I’ve bought the likes of Music Magnate, Winning Rupert, Bonny O’Reilly myself so that’s probably held me in pretty good stead, I’ve been able to buy good horses on a pretty limited budget.”