Eric Baker’s legacy continues with trainer Kevin Benn

by Melissa Keith

Eric Baker’s name may not be universally known in contemporary harness racing, but that’s only because his farm’s brand identity is so strong. The venture capitalist began breeding standardbreds at his Long Sault, ON farm Stormont Meadows in 1983-84, assigning them the “Stormont” prefix which has become so familiar across North America.

Last Tuesday (July 25) at Woodbine Mohawk Park, Stormont Divide (Justice Hall–Lady Grenville) was a 29-1 winner in a conditioned race for trotters aged 5 and younger. It was a new 1:55.1 lifetime mark for the lightly-raced 3-year-old colt, and testimony to the longevity of the Stormont Meadows name in trotting.

In August 1997, Baker’s homebred Lord Stormont (3, 1:53.2m; $901,504) bypassed the Hambletonian, but won the deciding third heat of the World Trotting Derby for Doug Brown over Hambletonian champion Malabar Man. Lord Stormont (Crowning Point–Lady Orbitex) broke his maiden that year at Mohawk and won four in a row there before going to New York to continue his win streak in the Yonkers Trot, Zweig, etc. The gelding would ultimately be voted 1997 O’Brien 3-Year-Old Trotting Colt of the Year.

Lord Stormont began his career in September 1996 at Windsor Raceway for Norm Jones, Baker’s primary trainer at the time. It was the following year that the gelding would make his mark, starting his 3-year-old season by winning a March 31 qualifier and his April 8 pari-mutuel debut, both at Mohawk with Jones in the sulky. Canadian Hall of Fame driver Doug Brown teamed up with Lord Stormont for the gelding’s April victories in an elimination and the final of Mohawk’s Tie Silk Series.

Lord Stormont would go undefeated for his next 10 starts, spanning three conditioned races at Mohawk; New York Sires Stakes at Vernon Downs, Buffalo Raceway, Monticello Raceway and Syracuse Mile; his Yonkers Trot elimination and the final; and the Zweig Memorial at Syracuse. His greatest moment came after his loss to Hambletonian winner Malabar Man in the 1:53.2m first heat of the Aug. 30, 1997 World Trotting Derby at DuQuoin, IL. Lord Stormont and regular driver Brown came back to win the next heat in an identical 1:53.2m over Malabar Man and Yankee Glide, and prevailed in the 2:00.2m two-horse race-off with Malabar Man.

The world champion trotter retired in 2004 after recording 24 wins in 51 career starts.

Almost 30 years after Lord Stormont was foaled, Eric Baker’s horses continue to make their mark. “He always breeds about eight mares a year,” said Benn, who trains most of the Stormont Meadows trotters today. “He picks the matings himself. He’s in his 80s. I just got off the phone with him. He’s still very involved in the game and loves harness racing. He’s been pretty successful.”

Benn said the Stormont focus is producing good stakes horses, competing primarily at Woodbine Mohawk Park and Rideau Carleton Raceway, although also enjoying success beyond Ontario’s borders in their aged careers for other owners. “[Baker] races everything he breeds,” Benn said. “If they’re extra special, he keeps them until they are 4 or 5.”

Stormont Ventnor (7, 1:52.4m; $390,991), a full brother to Stormont Divide, is currently racing for trainer Ron Burke at Scioto Downs and Hoosier Park. After early lessons at Kawartha Downs, the gelding started his racing career at Mohawk for Benn and driver Phil Hudon. He was an 2018 O’Brien Award finalist at age 3, with Ontario Sires Stakes Gold victories at Mohawk and Rideau Carleton.

“He’s a pleasure to train horses for. He’s one in a million. He’s got four 2-year-olds with me. I had eight for him all winter long,” said Benn, who currently conditions the aforementioned Stormont Divide; 4-year-old Angus Hall–Stormont Fried daughter Stormont Molly (3, 1:53.4s; 47,980); as well as Stormont Cheerio (The Bank–Donna Elvira) and Stormont Happy Day (Muscle Mass–Countess Stormont), both 2-year-old maiden colts racing at Mohawk.

“Stormont Happy Day was second at Mohawk and then third in the [Ontario Sires Stakes] Grassroots at Georgian Downs,” said Benn. “He’s a nice clean trotter. He doesn’t dog-trot and all that stuff.”

Grenville Heaven (2, 2:01.3f; $9,918) was a $43,000 Stormont Meadows purchase last year at Harrisburg under original name Heavens Gate Two. The Archangel–Allerage Belle colt was third in his debut baby race July 4 at Mohawk, and recorded his maiden win in OSS Grassroots at Georgian Downs July 30 for Benn and driver Sylvain Filion.

Baker occasionally entrusts his horses to other conditioners, like Rideau trainer/driver Ryan Guy. Kadabra–Tamasin Hall mare Stormont Mabel (3, 1:53.3s; $71,451), now 4, is another, noted Benn.

“Mabel won the [2022 OSS] Grassroots final with Desiree Jones, Norm Jones’ daughter. Norm had trained horses for [Baker] before me, even. He was sending them to Norm and he was sending them to me, guys in eastern Ontario. When Norm was getting up in age, he was sending them to me and [Desiree Jones].”

Benn said he’s grateful for the opportunity to remain at his farm in Napanee, ON, halfway between Woodbine Mohawk Park and Rideau Carleton, while working with Barker’s well-bred trotters. “I can’t even remember all the Stormonts I’ve trained. [Stormont] Tuscany [6, 1:53.3s; $854,055] was my favorite because he was my first big horse and he got me some recognition.” He added that the 1998 O’Brien 3-Year-Old Trotting Colt of the Year went on to cut the mile in Goodtimes’ 1:53.3f track record at Rideau Carleton, which was set in 1999 and still stands today.

Another memory: “Stormont Tuscany got beat in the Canadian Trotting Classic by a nose. It took 10 minutes to see who won it,” said Benn.

“If they don’t have the ability, [Baker] wants a better type of horse,” Benn said, explaining the owner typically disperses racing stock if they prove unable to succeed at Mohawk and/or Rideau Carleton.

If a horse has potential, the Stormont Meadows owner/breeder takes his time. “I have another, a Kadabra filly, [Stormont] Friendly, Ventnor’s half-sister,” Benn told HRU. “[Stormont] Divide is a full brother to Ventnor. She’s a nice big filly. She was going to miss most of the season: She had a stress line, so we backed off with her.” He said to watch for Stormont Friendly at Mohawk in the fall.

Stormont Meadows is something of an equine paradise, said Benn. Baker likes to keep his standardbreds turned out in spacious fields with run-in sheds at his farm near Cornwall, ON. “He raises them right. They don’t spend too many days in the barn. He brings them in, trims them and deworms them… they’re strong horses.

“Eric’s office is in the barn. He doesn’t have to drive to Montreal anymore. He’s a venture capitalist, still very involved. It keeps his mind sharp. He knows what’s going on.”

Benn and Baker share a partnership that has been rewarding for both.

“He tries everything and he gives them all a fair shot,” said the 59-year-old trainer/driver. “He listens and he trusts me. I’m honest with him and he appreciates it.”

Acknowledging that racing “can be a tough life,” Benn said he was enjoying the moment.

“I’m on a high right now, but there’s been lots of lows,” he said. He credited 2016 South Stormont Sports Hall of Fame inductee Eric Baker with making a major contribution to the current mood in his stable.

“He could afford to be flashy, but he’s not… He likes to do his own thing. He’s very proud of the Stormont line.”