Riding through the pain

The physical punishment E.T. Baird has endured throughout his career is more apt for a professional football player than a jockey.

He has shattered his right shoulder, tore his ACL, had a rod and screws placed in his right leg, fractured his pelvis twice, broke his hand twice, broke his ribs even more times and suffered numerous concussions. There are even a few injuries missing here, but those are the ones that immediately come to Baird's mind.

At 5-foot-4, 116 pounds, Baird is lucky to be in one piece after all he has put his body through. He realizes he probably shouldn't be, and that is the reason why he doesn't consider his 2,000 career wins -- a feat he reached at Arlington Park on Friday -- as his greatest accomplishment, but rather his ability to return from injury after injury at the top of his game.

"I think 2,000 [wins], it's a lot of races," said the 42-year-old Baird, who grew up in Rolling Meadows, Ill. "In this business, with injuries … I've had multiple injuries over the years. I've seen a lot of people go away. I think that's an accomplishment in itself."

His most devastating injury occurred at Hawthorne Park nearly 10 years ago. He went down coming out of the gate, and as he laid on the ground, he noticed his right boot had fallen off.

"'Wow, look at that, I knocked my boot off,'" he remembered thinking. "It wasn't registering. I then began wondering where my leg was. I lifted my leg and saw the bone hanging out."

His leg required four consecutive days of surgery. In the end, he had four screws and a titanium rod in his right leg from his ankle to his knee.

He knew others counted him out at that point, but nine months later, Baird proved he was nearly indestructible, as he won Hawthorne in his first race after returning.

"It just brings a big smile to your mind; you're back," he said. "You have all your naysayers. Just people forming an opinion, which kind of gives me more of a drive. No one likes to be underestimated. If I let what people say affect me in this business, I wouldn't be here now. You can overcome what people think."

The only person's opinion that ever mattered to Baird was his father Bobby's. Better known as R.L., he was a successful jockey himself -- he rode in the 1978 Kentucky Derby -- and the person Baird most admired. He's the reason Baird uses his initials E.T. (Edward Thomas) instead of his first name.

It was his father who placed him on his first horse when he was three. From there, he fell in love with it. As he got older, Baird began wanting to ride even more. He would even sneak sugar cubes from the kitchen and use them to lure horses to him.

"I would try to climb on top of them bareback, but I was never able to do that," he said. "My mom would catch me. She knew what I was doing whenever I got the sugar cubes. I think I wanted to do it my entire life."

Baird's father tried to persuade him not to follow in his footsteps. R.L. understood it could be a difficult profession.

But Baird remained persistent. He knew he had to prove himself to his father. In time, R.L. wore down and made an agreement with his son. He would watch him ride once and judge whether he was worthy of continuing.

"After the first race I ever rode, [R.L.] had a smile from ear to ear," Baird said. "He said, 'You're going to be all right.' It meant everything in the world to me at the time."

R.L. passed away at 82 in 2005. Nearly 2-and-a-half years later, Baird found himself riding in the Kentucky Derby, just as his father did. In 134th running of the Derby, Baird rode Recapturetheglory to a fifth-place finish.

This season, Baird has dominated Arlington Park. He wins at least once on most days and often multiple times. On July 11, he crossed the finish line first in five races. After win 2,000 on Friday, he added two more victories on Saturday. Through Saturday, he had 56 wins on the year and was in first place by 10 wins over the next jockey.

So far, Baird hasn't given retirement a thought. In his 25th year riding, he still enjoys what he's doing too much to give it up.

"You're out there, you're in control more or less," he said. "There are things you do you can't explain. What you do, you can't put into words. It's what I get the most satisfaction out of [in] life."