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Baze gets his first big shot with Big Booster

Jockey, in driver's seat for his first riding title, will try to spring the upset in the Gold Cup aboard the 6-year-old son of Accelerator.

June 29, 2007|Bob Mieszerski | Times Staff Writer

When Lava Man won his first Hollywood Gold Cup on July 9, 2005, Michael Baze was in New Jersey, a teenage jockey learning his trade riding at Monmouth Park in Oceanport.

On Saturday, Baze will be riding in his first Hollywood Gold Cup, a more polished professional hoping to prevent Lava Man from matching Native Diver with a third consecutive victory in Hollywood Park's signature event.

From a young man who says he did not see his first racehorse until he was 15, Baze has, in a span of five years, developed into the leading rider at one of the country's premier spring-summer meets.

A cousin of Tyler Baze and a second cousin to Russell Baze -- who surpassed Laffit Pincay Jr. last December to become the world's winningest jockey -- Baze, who turned 20 on April 14, will scale longshot Big Booster for trainer Mike Mitchell in the Gold Cup.

Given his family background -- his father is former jockey Mike Baze and his uncle is Gary Baze, the all-time leading rider at Longacres in Seattle -- it is surprising to learn that Baze had no real knowledge of the sport until his early teens.

"My mom took me away from the race track when I was only a year old," said Baze, who was born in Las Vegas. "I was never really interested in horse racing until Tyler started riding and even then I was just mainly a fan."

A phone call he received on his 15th birthday changed his path. Dennis Ward, a trainer and father of former jockey and current trainer Wesley Ward, "told my mom he was going to call me when I turned 15 to see if I wanted to learn how to ride.

"I didn't know exactly if that's what I wanted to do, but I thought I would give it a shot. I ended up at Del Mar. I got on my first horse on the training track there and didn't have a clue as to what I was doing. But after I started working more horses, I knew being a jockey is what I wanted to do."

His first victory came May 2, 2003, less than three weeks after he turned 16. Baze won with Out On The Sly at Hollywood Park.

"That first win was amazing," he said. "I couldn't believe it had really happened."

There have been nearly 450 victories since for Baze, who is a little more than two weeks away from a possible first riding title. Through Thursday, he leads apprentice Joe Talamo, 59-52.

"I never expected to have this much success at this point," said Baze, who is quick to credit his agent, Nick Cosato. "It would be amazing to be leading rider. It would mean a lot. It was a goal to be able to do it someday, but to have it happen so quickly would be unbelievable."

The Gold Cup will be the fourth start for Big Booster, a 6-year-old son of Accelerator, since he was claimed for $62,500 by Mitchell for owners Scott and Wayne Anastasi and Jimmy Ukegawa on Feb. 17 at Gulfstream Park.

Gelded shortly after he arrived in California after a disappointing fourth-place finish in his first start for his new owners March 24 in Florida, Big Booster relished the Cushion Track, winning an optional claimer at 24-1 on May 24.

That victory prompted Mitchell and his owners to roll the dice Saturday.

"We're just taking a shot," Mitchell said. "The distance will be fine with him. I wouldn't be running him if the horse wasn't doing well, but he's training great."

Whether Big Booster is good enough to register the upset Saturday remains to be seen, but Mitchell will have total confidence in his rider. Mitchell has long been, well, a big booster of Baze. In fact, the jockey's first graded stakes win came on the Mitchell-trained Symphony Sid in the Carleton F. Burke Handicap last Oct. 21 at Santa Anita.

"I love him," Mitchell said. "He's humble. There's not an arrogant bone in his body, which is refreshing.

"I've known Nick for a long time and he has really stepped it up. He and Michael are both very hard workers. They are a really good combination. Nick is hustling like an agent should and he's enjoying himself."

Cosato -- who has represented Garrett Gomez, Patrick Valenzuela and Corey Nakatani -- reunited with Baze earlier this year. Cosato had been Baze's agent for about a three-week period before the youngster left to ride in New Jersey.

"He's made big strides in a short period of time," Cosato said. "I always knew the talent was there. He's very cool. He's years ahead of himself as far as poise and demeanor.

"Working with him is a complete dream. He's always where you tell him to be and he never complains about anything. It makes you want to go out there and bust your butt because of how he is."

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bob.mieszerski@latimes.com

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