12/29/2010 2:02PM

2011 can't arrive soon enough for Tyler Baze


Count Tyler Baze among those who won’t shed a tear to see 2010 fade away Friday at midnight.

The racing season effectively ended for Baze behind the starting gate at Del Mar on the afternoon of July 24 when a horse named Night Justice threw his head and cracked the rider in the face. Baze, 28, sustained a broken nose and multiple fractures of the orbital bone around the right eye.

Since then, Baze’s life as a jockey has been one long ordeal of fits and starts. The fractures have healed, but a serious side effect lingers – a side effect that would rank as among the more comprehensive disqualifiers when it comes to riding racehorses.

“I can see just fine straight ahead, I can see left and right, and I can see down,” Baze said this week. “But when I look up it’s double vision.”

Most of the rest of us can go through a day without needing to look up for any particular reason, except for responding to the occasional, “Hey, is that the latest Angelyne billboard?” When it comes to gainful employment, it’s eyes down to the keyboard and straight ahead to the customer across the counter, with an occasional left or right glance at a side mirror during the commute.

Jockeys, on the other hand, spend about 100 percent of their competitive time with the muscles of the eye pulling upward to look where they’re going while at the same time maintaining their flat-backed riding posture. Try it, you’ll see what I mean. Baze had no trouble galloping horses, since head posture is not critical. But when he assumed the position, he knew there was a problem.

“The mesh plate they put in to fix the fractures ended up clinging to the muscles of the eye in some way because of scar tissue or something,” Baze explained. “So they’re going to go in and take out that plate, and put in a flat plate, made of titanium I think, that won’t restrict the eye movement.”

Baze’s facial fractures and ensuing complications came on the heels of his broken thumb, sustained at Del Mar in 2009, which required more time to heal than originally planned.

In between, Baze was on a roll, contending for the Hollywood Park riding title for much of the spring and summer meet before finishing third to Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano. He was poised for a banner Del Mar when Night Justice freaked out, and that was that.

Baze tried hard to come back in a timely fashion. He underwent months of vision therapy trying to override the problem before the final diagnosis was made. In the meantime, he has been faced with that ancient agony suffered by jockeys through the ages: what to do with too much time on his hands.

“I’ve seen every movie in Blockbuster twice,” Baze said, “and I went hunting a couple times. But mostly I’ve just been hitting the gym, working out and trying to stay fit. When I got on the scale the other day I weighed 118, which I thought was pretty good. I thought I’d be more like 125.”

Baze insists he has kept his weight down the right way, which is a fair question to ask, considering the fact that he nearly trashed his career in his early 20s with a vicious combination of binging, purging, and alcohol consumption. Nutritional therapy, combined with the awful realization that his days as a jockey could be finished, set Baze on a better path, leading to a solid 2008 and a personal-best 2009 despite his thumb, during which his mounts won $8.2 million, good for 21st in the nation and ahead of such household names as Joe Bravo, Eibar Coa, Shaun Bridgmohan, and his cousin, Russell Baze.

All that is cold comfort, however, to a veteran racetracker like Baze. From the time he won the Eclipse Award for apprentice jockey in 2000 he has been in the public eye, and he knows there is nothing more difficult than regaining the business lost during a lengthy recovery from injury. Adding to his challenges is the fact that his most recent agent, Vic Stauffer, announced earlier this month that he was going to stick to his track announcer’s gigs and give up hustling book.

“Everything’s been tough, especially with Vic quitting, and now needing to find a new agent, somebody I’m comfortable working with,” Baze said. “I’ve only had three agents in my life. It’s a lot to handle all at one time.”

In one sense the road ahead for Baze is simple, and the prognosis better than good. He has more than held his ground in the past against riders such as Rosario, Bejarano, Joe Talamo, and Victor Espinoza. On Jan. 4 he reports for a pre-op examination and consultation, with surgery to follow a week or so later at the UC Irvine Medical Center. Two or three weeks later he could be galloping horses again, then in another month or so back in the saddle as one of Southern California’s finest.

“I wanted to be back by opening day in the worst way,” Baze said, referring to the start of the Santa Anita season on Dec. 26. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”

Instead, Baze attended the opener in cognito. Or, rather, he showed up looking pretty much like he looks all the time right now, with a grizzly growth of a beard, shades, and a ballcap pulled low. He wanted to watch his cousin Michael Baze, now based in the Midwest, ride Champagne d’Oro in the co-featured La Brea Stakes (they finished sixth). Beyond that he was not much for mixing.

“I didn’t really want to be there, but I wanted to see Michael because it had been so long,” Baze said. “I think maybe two people recognized me, and it took Michael about three looks.”

While all the time Tyler was thinking, “Just wait ‘till next year.”