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Baze of Glory

Northern California jockey becomes the second to pass 9,000-win milestone with dedication that earns respect from racing world

June 06, 2005|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ALBANY, Calif. — It was Friday, the day after Russell Baze had ridden his 9,000th winner, and Sam Spear, a racing publicist, called to ask if Baze could do a phone interview for the John Madden show, a radio program that the nationally known broadcaster does in the Bay Area.

"I've got to work a horse," Baze said politely.

"But this is only five minutes, and it's John Madden," Spear persisted.

"But it comes at a time when I have to work a horse," Baze said patiently.

"I'll talk to your agent," the stymied Spear said.

Baze wound up doing the show, but the story Spear told emphasizes the focus that the 46-year-old jockey has had throughout his 40,700-race career. Hardly anything keeps Baze from making his appointed rounds -- workouts in the mornings, riding races in the afternoons -- here at Golden Gate Fields, where he reached the 9,000-win mark, or at Bay Meadows in nearby San Mateo.

"Russell's got a work ethic like nobody else's," said trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who also operates with the dedication of a Cossack. Ray Harris, Baze's long-time agent, has told the workaholic Hollendorfer that he should slow down while he's still healthy.

It was less than even money that Baze's 9,000th win would have come aboard a Hollendorfer horse. Baze estimates that he has ridden about 2,000 winners for Hollendorfer, and the trainer said that the total might be more like 2,500. Baze rode his 4,000th, 6,000th and 7,000th winners with Hollendorfer horses.

"Whether it's 2,000 or 2,500 wins, it must be some kind of a record for a [trainer-jockey] team," Hollendorfer said.

The magical 9,000 milestone came when Queen Of The Hunt, a filly Hollendorfer had claimed for $7,000 in February, won Thursday's last race. Baze has kept right on winning. He won three races Friday, four Saturday and three Sunday. His total stands at 9,010, in the crosshairs is Laffit Pincay's record of 9,530. Pincay was forced to retire when he was seriously injured in a spill at Santa Anita in 2003.

"I think he's going to do it," said Pincay, who admits he misses riding so much that he seldom goes to the races or watches them on TV. "He's very dedicated, and he's riding awfully well. I hope he does do it. I'll be calling him and congratulating him when he does."

Baze will be in New York next Saturday, to ride the undefeated Lost In The Fog in the Riva Ridge on Belmont Stakes day, but most of his winning has come at Golden Gate and Bay Meadows, tracks not known for running races of national significance. Baze won an Eclipse Award (one voted him by committee in 1995) and was enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame four years later, but he seems to compete in a vacuum. Area papers paid little attention to his entry into the 9,000-win club, a lodge that consists of only two jockeys. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story with a one-column headline on Page 6 of the sports section. The Oakland Tribune ran two paragraphs on Page 7. There were five paragraphs on Page 2 in the Contra Costa Times, and the San Jose Mercury News didn't carry a line.

Baze, who smiles a toothy smile and exudes an easy-going demeanor that belies his in-the-saddle intensity, doesn't seem to mind. In the Bay Area, horses as good as Lost In the Fog seldom come his way. He has ridden in only one Kentucky Derby, finishing 14th with Semoran in 1996. When Baze and Tami, his wife of 26 years and the daughter of Jack Arterburn, who rode and trained horses, go out, sometimes with their four children, Baze says he's seldom recognized. "But isn't that the way it is with most jockeys?" he adds.

Sadly for racing, it is. Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens published recent biographies, and Stevens, who played jockey George Woolf in "Seabiscuit," was a movie star for a year, but overall the game's best jockeys, for all their skills and derring-do, are under-appreciated. Appearances by Kent Desormeaux on "Baywatch" are sometime things. Other than the Triple Crown series and the Breeders' Cup, jockeys drift from the general public's consciousness.

In the middle of 1988, after he had won between 236 and 372 races a year for seven straight years, Baze moved his base from here to Southern California. "Anything I do [in Northern California] would now be anticlimactic," he said at the time.

But Harris, who had booked mounts for Baze since 1980, after he had been fired by another rider, Richard Sanchez, remained in Northern California for family reasons. During three years at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar, Baze used two agents, one of whom, Pat McDowell, had represented his father, Joe Baze, during a career that produced about 1,700 wins.

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