Three Strikes

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Tough couple of weeks in steeplechasing. Bay Cockburn, Tom Voss and now Gary Baker are gone. Three disparate personalities, each weaving their squares into the well-worn, high-mileage fabric of steeplechasing.

They loved the game.

Cockburn became a local legend, hunting his hounds, riding his races. Point-to-point wins ranked as high or higher than hunt meet wins, he would rather ride for Gordie Keys than Jonathan Sheppard, the Eustis Cup more important than the Virginia Gold Cup. A dying breed – the sportsman, flare and panache atop a horse, grace and humility on the ground. Renowned for hitting the ground and bouncing back (many times in the same race), he never stood up again after a training accident so many years ago. “There but for the grace of God go I…” It rings loud in the world of steeplechasing, a haunting toll from the bell tower, you can’t escape it. Cockburn lived as stoically as any of us could imagine after the day God didn’t grace him. It’s a question none of us want to ask ourselves. He died on Christmas Day.

Voss was born a local legend. The hard-charging, hard-living Marylander collected stories and friends with a natural abandon, frustrating and endearing all at the same time. He loved being the curmudgeon, the enigma. Surly but sensitive, grumpy but gregarious, laid back but high strung. The country version of Bobby Frankel. As his former assistant Todd Wyatt said, “He was the most well-liked difficult man in history.” Yeah, I guess he was. Back to that fabric, there is a big hole in steeplechase quilt. It’s hard to fathom turning that corner of the Annex at Saratoga and not seeing yellow webbings, hanging flowers, a couple of dogs, a tranquil but proud lead pony and the horse trainer. Monday, we said goodbye to Voss, then walked past a few graves, a few rows and said hello to our old friend Jonathan Kiser, gone nearly 14 years, hard to believe. Cut from the same cloth, one made it to 22, the other to 63.

Baker was born near his grandfather’s farm in Port Deposit, Md. where he rode draft horses, eventually settling in Middleburg, Va. He racked up more volunteer hours than the Red Cross, managing horse shows, judging horse shows, officiating hunt meets, chairing hunt meets, volunteering his time, offering his opinion. He provided opportunities to the young, the old, the forlorn and the forgotten, buying cheap horses off big outfits, training them in Virginia and racing them in Virginia. Steadfast and old-fashioned, he could be frustrating (he would see it as a compliment) but he was always there, always volunteering, always pushing an agenda of fair play and opportunity. He came to our house for dinner a few years ago, our son Miles was telling him stories, lots of stories, finally Gary looked up and asked, “What time does Miles go to bed?” It was typical Gary, cutting to the chase and sticking to a schedule.

Different men, different accomplishments, different legacies and all part of our world, a funny little world of horses and horsemen, meets and feats, friends and family, rivals and comrades.

– For the best column on Tom Voss, read Joe’s here.

– For more on Cockburn, read it here.

– For more on Baker, read it here.