07/11/2001 12:00AM

Baeza a classic rider in classic era


ELMONT, N.Y. - "Good days and bad days?" Braulio Baeza reflected on the question with a little chuckle. "There were plenty of both. One of the good days was the Kentucky Derby of 1963. I was riding Chateaugay for Darby Dan Farm. He was 9-1, but all the pieces began to fall into place. We needed speed in front of us and it developed nicely, thanks to Never Bend and No Robbery. Everything worked out perfectly and he was a comfortable winner.

"A few months later we're in Saratoga and I'm riding Lamb Chop in the Alabama for Jim Maloney," Baeza continues. "Lamb Chop is a standout and part of an entry favored at 1-2. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. I'd go for a hole between horses and the hole would be going faster. We were beaten a photo by a 20-1 shot named Tona and I never rode Lamb Chop again. It was a very bad day."

Baeza's good days far outnumbered his bad days, and by the time he retired in 1976 after 16 years of riding in the U.S. - and another four years in his native Panama - he was credited with 3,140 winners, including many on the best of the era. You had to have seen him, for he was a classic. He was perfectly balanced in the drive, his back absolutely parallel with the back of the horse. Even in the post parade his appearance was sensational: ramrod-straight, like a park policeman.

He looked great and rode even better. Horsemen entrusted him with their best, and there weren't many better at the time than Dr. Fager.

"I rode him the day he set the mile record of 1:32 1/5 at Arlington Park," Baeza recalls. "He carried 134 pounds. I took a quick look back at the eighth pole and had a hard time spotting the rest of the field, so I began easing him, and that is how he set the record. He made one start on the grass, in the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City that same year, 1968, and carrying the same 134 pounds. He wasn't getting hold of the course. He was slipping and sliding, particularly on the turns, but he won on his class. He was competing against the best grass horses, including Fort Marcy, and he beat them all."

One of Baeza's biggest thrills came at York, England, in August of 1972. Brigadier Gerard, the toast of Europe and never beaten, was the heavy favorite for the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup. Baeza was riding Darby Dan Farm's Roberto, who won the Epsom Derby under Lester Piggott. Piggott, England's leading jockey, did some handicapping and took himself off Roberto, creating the opportunity for Baeza.

Almost everyone expected Brigadier Gerard to win but Baeza put Roberto on the lead. When he wasn't challenged early, Baeza was able to keep Roberto in front for a monumental upset.

"I also got a big kick when President Eisenhower came to Belmont Park in 1961 to present the trophy for the Belmont Stakes," he said. "The horse was Sherluck. I'd ridden him to win the Blue Grass that spring but was committed to Crozier for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Crozier was owned by Fred Hooper, the man who brought me here from Panama. Carry Back won the Derby and Preakness and was favored to win the Belmont. Crozier, after finishing second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, did not run in the Belmont, so I was free to take the mount. I placed him just off the pace and Sherluck came on to win. Being congratulated by President Eisenhower was special."

Baeza trained a public stable for several years, then was hired as an official by the New York Racing Association and still serves the sport that has meant so much to him all his life.

"I've had a lot of good luck throughout my career," he noted. "Droll Role is a perfect example. I rode him to win the Canadian International in 1972, and he earned an invitation to the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. Some of the best grass horses in the world were in the field and some of them were involved in a spill. Coming from off the pace, we had to avoid fallen horses, but we picked our way through and Droll Role won."