An article in the May 19, 1943 issue of the Harness Horse magazine, the most widely read Standardbred journal of the day, reported the activities of the horsemen who were training their trotters and pacers at the Fayette County fairgrounds. The article noted that G. Damon Baker, a Washington C. H. resident, was “a comparative newcomer to the owners’ ranks and a most welcome recruit thereto.” Thus began the career of one of the county’s most successful and popular horsemen who, over the next quarter century, campaigned approximately 75 trotters and pacers.
G. Damon Baker—known to his legion of friends simply as “G. D.” or Damon—-was born in Pike County, Ohio. He arrived in Fayette County at age 11 when his family moved into a large brick house opposite the old National Cash Register (NCR) Company at the southern edge of Washington Court House. In 1921, at a relatively young age, he organized the Baker Wood Preserving Company which creosoted thousands of railroad ties at its plant on a 60-acre tract where NCR later stood. He sold the business in 1927, and the new owners moved it to Marion, Ohio. He then established a road construction business, which he managed from a small building at 225 South Main Street. He had extensive farming interests as well.
Damon Baker’s career in harness racing began in 1943 when he purchased a 2-year-old trotting filly named Snappy Kate from local horseman McKinley Kirk, and a 2-year-old pacing filly named Pathe Ann from Ernie Smith, a widely-known Fayette County trainer-driver.
In 1946, Baker developed the Belle Aire residential subdivision on the eastern portion of a farm he had bought south of Elm Street. Three years later, he opened his Belle Aire Farm, a Standardbred breeding establishment, located on the western portion of the farm that extended from Elm Street south along the Greenfield pike. This part of the farm included an enormous barn, which previously had been the site of regional livestock auctions. Baker considered the barn an ideal home for his horses, and this was a principal reason he bought the farm. In the 1940s, the huge structure was one of the largest barns in Fayette County in terms of square footage—perhaps even the largest.
Baker’s string of racehorses seldom included fewer than half a dozen trotters and pacers. His initial trainer was Robert Vallery, who operated a public stable at the Fayette County fairgrounds. Belle Aire Farm’s subsequent trainers, who conditioned the farm’s horses at the fairgrounds, were Jack Casey from Hutchinson, Kansas; Frank O’Mara from Palms, Michigan; Paul Norris, a Fayette County trainer-driver; and Bill Sargent from Newark, Ohio.
Damon Baker’s first standout horse was Sisco Kid, a 4-year-old trotter he bought from Rollo Graham, a Marysville, Ohio horseman, shortly before the 1948 Fayette County Fair. Sisco Kid had already won four heats in 1948 when Baker purchased him in July. With Robert Vallery in the sulky, the chestnut stallion trotted 15 more winning heats in 1948. In describing a race Sisco Kid won at Lexington, Kentucky’s Red Mile racetrack on Oct. 1, 1948, the Harness Horse magazine paid Baker a telling compliment when it described him as having “that rare trait of seeing the horses of his friends successful, seemingly as much as his own.”
Belle Aire Farm typically sent its seasoned horses to the pari-mutuel raceways in the East and Midwest with the stable’s trainer and then had other horsemen based at the fairgrounds pilot its 2- and 3-year-olds at the Ohio fairs. Frank Lanum, Ernie Smith, A. G. Gordon, Marc Ferguson, and Hugh Beatty all drove Belle Aire horses at the fairs.
Damon Baker liked naming his horses after family members. There was the trotter Little Frank named for his son, Frank, and for his father-in-law, Frank Brakefield. Belle Aire’s crack pacer Elma B. carried the name of his daughter, Elma, while the pacer Gretchen B. was named for his granddaughter. G. D. named one of his fillies Vinnie Brakefield in honor of his mother-in-law.
Mary Brakefield, a Belle Aire homebred pacer foaled in 1957, was sired by Fayette County’s nationally famous pacer, Jerry the First. After she became a broodmare in the barn of an Eastern horseman, Mary Brakefield produced Seatrain (by Meadow Skipper), winner of the 1975 Little Brown Jug.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, Baker and his wife Gladys liked spending a day or two at the Magnetic Springs resort 12 miles due west of Delaware, Ohio, in Union County. In 1955, the Magnetic Springs Polio Foundation converted the resort’s Park Hotel into a rehabilitation center for children afflicted with polio. The foundation remodeled the property with money donated by individuals and organizations from throughout Ohio, especially the Grange lodges.
Damon Baker was an affable, kind, and generous man. In November 1955, he announced that he would contribute to the Magnetic Springs Polio Foundation all of the money paid for his top yearling pacer, Hickory Major, when the horse was auctioned at an upcoming horse sale at the Delaware County Fairgrounds. When the bidding stalled at $700 on the night of the sale, Baker took the microphone and told the assembled horsemen he was bidding in the colt for $1,500 and giving that amount of money to the Magnetic Springs Foundation.
G. Damon Baker died in March 1965 at the age of 70. At his passing, the Record-Herald told its readers that “Few realized how much or how often he lent a hand to those in need. He knew the man on the street and the groom at the stable by his first name and that’s the way they knew him, too,” the newspaper said.
Damon Baker’s best horses were Proclaim p, 2:00.1; Elma B. p, 2:00.2; Valiant Way p, 2:00.4; and Top Pro t, 2:03.1. Other well-known horses campaigned by Belle Aire Farm were Morris H., Proclamation, Bitucote, Lite Vonian, Pro Mac, and Gombos Pick.
Besides being an owner and breeder of trotters and pacers, Baker supported harness racing in other ways. When Scioto Downs, the five-eights-mile night harness track opened near Columbus in 1959, he was purported to be the track’s second largest stockholder—-second only to Charles Hill, the Columbus beer distributor who founded the track.
Damon Baker was the epitome of what the colorful, descriptive turf writer William Gocher has called “the optimistic owner whom everybody has seen. The twinkle in his eye gives the world confidence in racing. His presence is like sunshine on race day.” It was fortunate for harness racing that G. Damon Baker made the Standardbred sport his favorite pastime.