07/14/2010 6:28PM

Baeza out to get past rough spot


BOSSIER CITY, La. – Braulio Baeza will be forever linked to racing in New York, where he built a Hall of Fame career riding such horses as Buckpasser and Dr. Fager. But these days, he’s far removed from the Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga stages that were the site of so many of his biggest victories.

Baeza is the clerk of scales at Louisiana Downs, one of several steps he is taking to restore his reputation as a racing official. Baeza said his credibility was shattered in 2005, when as the assistant clerk of scales for the New York Racing Association he was accused by the state of allowing riders to compete at incorrect weights in 59 races run between June and December of 2004.

Baeza and the clerk of scales, Mario Sclafani, were fired by NYRA when the indictment, which included claims of conspiracy and tampering with a sports contest, was made late in 2005. Both men faced up to seven years in prison if convicted.

When the case finally went to court in September 2007, all charges on the 291-count indictment were dismissed. Attorneys for Baeza and Sclafani proved had argued that the prosecution’s case was flawed and lacked an understanding of weighing procedures, such as the allowances given for safety equipment that jockeys wear and racetrack material they are pelted with during a race.

The case being thrown out was vindication, but the damage had been done, Baeza said

“They ruined my life, really, my reputation, and that was very important to me, very dear to me,” Baeza said. “It took me a long time to get where I was, and they ruined it.”

Baeza, 70, is fighting back. In September 2008, attorneys for Baeza and Sclafani, who is now working outside of racing, filed a lawsuit against Eliot Spitzer, the New York Attorney General at the time; the state’s prosecutors; NYRA; and others involved in the case. (NYRA was dropped from the suit not long after it was filed.) They are seeking $100 million in damages for the hit to their reputations, their job losses, and legal expenses.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The defendants have sought a summary judgement motion, or a decision in the case without a trial, and Baeza’s attorneys, who are opposing that request, are waiting to hear what action the judge will take. An initial oral argument in the case in April debated whether state officials should have immunity.

Baeza had long been affiliated with NYRA, first going to work for the association in May 1995 as a jockeys’ room custodian, after training racehorses for about 15 years. He was promoted to assistant clerk of scales in January 1997, and also served as an alternate association steward.

Baeza took some time off after losing his position with NYRA, then reentered the sport as a racing official last winter when he became the clerk of scales at Hialeah’s meet for Quarter Horses.

“I spent almost a year off,” he said, “then I was stall-walking, like they say, so I worked a little bit as a jockeys’ agent for my wife [Janice Blake-Baeza]. But I’m not good at it. I don’t have the temperament for that work.”

So it was a perfect fit when Baeza received a call offering him the clerk of scales position at Hialeah, which, after being shuttered for years, reopened in November 2009.

“I was excited because I love Hialeah,” he said. “That was my first track I came to in the United States.”

Baeza is a third-generation jockey from Panama. He began galloping horses at the age of 7, was race-riding by 15, and a few years later came to the United States under contract for the late prominent owner and breeder Fred Hooper. In all, Baeza rode professionally from 1955 to 1976 and five times was the leading jockey in North America. He won the Kentucky Derby with Chateaugay in 1963, rode Foolish Pleasure in the infamous match race with Ruffian in 1975, and teamed with four Horses of the Year: Roman Brother (1965), Buckpasser (1966), Dr. Fager (1968), and Arts and Letters (1969).

“The man was a superstar on horses,” said jockey Patrick Valenzuela, who is based at Louisiana Downs. “I remember when I was 16 and went out to California to ride there, my uncle had all these pictures on the wall of the top 10 riders he’d ever ridden with, and one was Braulio Baeza.

“It was an honor to meet him when he came here. I never thought I would. He’s a blessing to the room. He adds a lot of character, a lot of history to this room.”

David Heitzmann, the racing secretary at Louisiana Downs, said Baeza was recommended for the clerk position by Terry Meyocks, the national manager of the Jockeys’ Guild. Heitzmann had put out a few calls seeking a clerk, Meyocks got wind of the situation, and everything came together for Baeza shortly before the meet opened May 1.

“We’re glad to have him,” Heitzmann said. “He brings class. He loves the track and he loves the job itself.”

Baeza said he had been to Louisiana once before, to ride in a stakes at Fair Grounds in the 1960s. He didn’t win, but his second time around has been a success. Baeza said he is relishing being part of the jockeys’ room atmosphere at Louisiana Downs. It’s the latest chapter in a career in which Baeza has won two Eclipse Awards, in 1972 and 1975, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976. Other high points for him include winning the George Woolf Memorial Award in 1968 and meeting both the Queen of England and President Eisenhower.

“When I won my first Belmont in 1961, Mr. Eisenhower did the presentation,” Baeza said. “And I was surprised because he spoke to me in Spanish. He spoke Spanish very clearly. He told me he did his service in Panama. A few things like that stay with you the rest of your life.”

As does a good reputation, said Baeza.