09/10/2006 11:00PM

Back at the bullring again


Tyler Baze was asked if he recognized the guy in the framed photograph hanging behind him on the wall of the Del Mar jockeys' room lounge. One in a large grouping of jockey portraits, the subject in question sported a lopsided grin, a mouthful of crooked teeth, and a callow face that had yet to feel the scrape of a razor.

"I have no clue - some kid, I guess," Baze replied. "Some kid who rode his first season at Pomona right after his first meet at Del Mar."

Baze laughed at the thought of a 17-year-old apprentice having the gall to step right into the Fairplex Park tornado less than a year after he had started to ride. He somehow survived, ending up the top bug at the fair, then went on to finish the 2000 season in high style, winning the Eclipse Award as North America's outstanding apprentice of the year.

Nearly six full seasons later, the young man in that photo has gone through a Sears catalog of dramatic ups and downs. From the highs of 2004, during which he led the competitive Hollywood Park summer meet and guided home the winners of more than $10 million, to the awful depths of 2005, when he struggled with bulimia and fought hard to maintain a foothold in Southern California, Tyler Baze is proud to say that he is feeling healthy and strong and riding better than ever, and if you don't believe him, just come out and watch him in action at the L.A. County Fair.

A month shy of his 24th birthday, the Tyler Baze of today is far removed from the dangerously underweight young rider of a year ago, who was down into the 95-pound range on a 5-4 frame, prompting friends in the jocks' room to raise alarms.

"There's a lot of difference now," Baze said, flashing a gorgeous grin full of perfectly capped teeth, the reward for more than a year of dentistry nightmares. "I feel very good, strong. I started going to a nutritionist every week, and still go every month. I changed a lot of habits. And I'm working my butt off, staying busy."

Baze had a solid Hollywood Park summer meet, finishing fifth behind Victor Espinoza, Patrick Valenzuela, and apprentices Martin Garcia and Juan Ochoa. His recent Del Mar season was plagued with bad luck, exemplified by the fatal breakdown of Blazing Sunset, his mount in a division of the Oceanside Stakes on opening day. But he went out on a high note, winning the $189,000 Palomar Handicap aboard Mea Domina on the final Saturday of the meet, putting up a cagey, wire-to-wire ride for owner Jan Whitham and trainer Ron McAnally.

"That made my meet," Baze said. "She is the sweetest horse, and the hardest trier."

Baze is back at Fairplex Park this season after what amounted to a two-year absence. He sat out the 2004 meet while agent Ivan Puhich underwent hip surgery and recovery. Last year, admittedly a burnt-out case, Baze headed for the therapeutic great outdoors of his native Northwest.

He was missed. During his first four Fairplex meets, Baze accumulated 103 wins, a quick strike that put him instantly among the all-time top 20 riders at the fair. Competing around the tight turns of the five-furlong oval, it helps to have the reactions of an athlete in his early 20's, as well as a healthy dose of bravery. Baze discovered, however, that it was the wise, older guys who knew their way around the bullring best. His mentor was Chance Rollins, 10 years his senior.

"During that first year at Pomona, I wouldn't have made it without Chance," Baze said. "He had basically taught me how to ride when I was at Turf Paradise. No matter if I won a race or ran dead last, he'd sit there watching films with me every day, saying, 'Why did you do this? Why didn't you do that?' I owe him a lot.

"So I was lucky he was at Pomona," Baze went on. "Chance got me through those first few days, and it was tough. The first day I rode, I was very cautious. Then I started learning the track a little better, and ended up having a good meet."

The relationship between Baze and Rollins transcended the racetrack. When Rollins competed for a while on the Southern California circuit, he and his partner, Paige Schvaneveldt, lived with Baze at his home near Santa Anita.

"It was like having a family," Baze said. "I left home when I was 16, and it was really nice having them around."

Baze was at work at Hollywood Park on June 11, 2006, when Rollins suffered a severe head injury in a racing accident at Bay Meadows.

"I heard about it, then I saw it later on the news," Baze recalled. "I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life, because he's like my dad, one of my best friends. When I heard he'd lost his memory, I just prayed every day that he'd remember me."

As it turned out, both Rollins and much of his memory survived, and the same can be said about the career of Tyler Baze. The kid has stayed in the picture.