His father rode in the Kentucky Derby five times, and now E.T. Baird gets his chance for fame.
The Northwest suburbs' very own, Baird will experience the dream of every jockey when he jumps aboard Recapturetheglory in Saturday's 134th running of the Kentucky Derby.
Baird, a 41-year-old native of Rolling Meadows and son of the late Bobby Baird, could be called the Illinois state representative at this year's Run for the Roses. Not only was he born in Illinois, Baird earned his trip to Louisville by winning the Illinois Derby on April 5 at Hawthorne.
Baird still remembers being a sixth-grader in Maryland and watching his father pilot Raymond Earl in the 1978 Kentucky Derby. Bobby, who rode until he was 62, was a resident of Mount Prospect and a D-Day survivor at Normandy. He earned four Purple Hearts. He died in December 2005 at 85.
"He told me that the Kentucky Derby is just one race, but there's something about it," said Baird, a 1984 graduate of Rolling Meadows High School, where he played varsity tennis. "He said it sends chills down your spine when they're playing 'My Old Kentucky Home' and you're coming onto the track.
"So much comes into play to get this chance. It's the Super Bowl of horse racing. There's nothing like it. Every rider dreams of this race because of all its prestige and history."
Baird's history includes the 1986 Hawthorne riding title as an apprentice and a then-record 103 wins. A member of the Hawthorne Hall of Fame, his best season at the Stickney track came in 2007, when he won 121 races and earned $2.6 million in purses.
Last summer he enjoyed his finest meet at Arlington Park, winning 89 races to finish third.
Recapturetheglory, the son of Cherokee Run, is co-owned by Ronnie Lamarque and Louis Roussel III, who also trains the 3-year-old colt. The owners won the 1988 Preakness and Belmont Stakes with Risen Star, who ran third in the Kentucky Derby that year.
Thus the name, Recapturetheglory, amid the hopes of Lemarque and Roussel that this colt would get them back to the Kentucky Derby.
"My father rode for Louie in the 1970s," Baird said. "He was friends with his family. Louie called me when I was at Gulfstream this winter and he thought a lot of this horse.
"He was making comparisons to Risen Star. He asked me if I would ride him."
Baird rode Recapture to a 4-length wire-to-wire victory in the Illinois Derby. It was the colt's stakes debut, and the 15-1 pacesetter collected $300,000 for the win.
Recapturetheglory's only other win was a two-turn maiden race last fall at Hawthorne. That was his third career start, but then he ran second to Cool Coal Man, another Kentucky Derby probable, in a Churchill Downs allowance race before taking a 45-day break.
Recapturetheglory made his comeback in a turf allowance race Feb. 29 at the Fair Grounds.
"He's a good horse, no doubt about it," Baird said. "It was so nice in the Illinois Derby. He just accelerated (in the stretch) when I asked of him, which is pretty amazing to do against good horses."
Baird has been spending the last two weeks at Churchill Downs, soaking in the atmosphere. He rented a house in nearby Prospect, where he is being joined by his mother, brother and friends.
"I can see what this (riding in the Derby) is like now," Baird said. "My dad always told me it was one of those lifetime experiences. You never know if your day will come as a jockey.
"I am so grateful to Louie (Roussel)," Baird added. "This type of business is very competitive, and for Louie to keep me on this horse for the Derby is great. There are so many different things going on with agents trying to get in this race. Some good. Some ugly. I'm just happy I have the opportunity."
Last summer, Baird had the opportunity to ride for the leading owner (Frank Calabrese) and trainer (Wayne Catalano) at Arlington Park. After a big summer in which he won 89 races, Baird and Calabrese went their separates ways.
Baird said he will be looking for a new start after the Kentucky Derby.
"My plans are up in the air right now," said Baird, whose agent is Heather Alvarado. "My emphasis is on this race right now, then I'll have to start riding at different places. Starting out fresh somewhere is not a bad thing."
For now he wants to enjoy the Derby experience.
"When you first start out riding (Baird was an apprentice in 1985), you keep saying to yourself, 'I have time, I'll ride in the Derby one day.' But as you get older, it starts to seem farther away. I feel fortunate."
Baird's former agent, Penny Ffitch-Heyes, who handled his mounts last summer and three of the last four years, is excited for her former jockey.
After winning a stakes race last July 25 at Arlington, Baird was at Northwest Community Hospital that night to see Ffitch-Heyes' baby Bella, who was born that day. Bella's godmother is Roussel's assistant trainer, Lara Van Deren.
"This is absolutely brilliant for E.T.," said Ffitch-Heyes, who will book mounts for Ramsey Zimmerman and Inez Karlson at Arlington Park this summer. "I told E.T. how proud of him I was. Every rider dreams of this. I am absolutely thrilled for him."