12/26/2001 12:00AM

Baze and Harris: Mutuel admiration society


ALBANY, Calif. - California's eight-day break from racing may cost Russell Baze his seventh national riding title, but he has already surpassed the 400-win mark for the ninth time in his career. Winner of the National Turf Writers Association's Isaac Murphy Award for the best winning percentage every year since its inception in 1995, Baze is about to take that honor yet again.

On the verge of becoming the fourth rider in history to record 8,000 victories, Baze is sometimes characterized as being a big fish in a small pond, riding in Northern California. But there are other key reasons for his success. Other than his health, Baze's greatest asset may be his agent, Ray Harris.

Harris and Baze have been together since 1980, with the exception a three-year sojourn Baze made to Southern California. In a business often noted for quick changes, Baze and Harris remind many racetrack observers of Bill Shoemaker and his longtime agent, Harry Silbert, for their longevity and success.

"First of all, I think Russell is a great person. It all starts there," Harris said. "His work ethic has no flaws in it."

The two are similar: dedicated family men, hard workers, and ferocious competitors.

"We have similar outlooks on life and family," Baze said.

Baze had five agents before joining forces with Harris.

Harris, who has a degree in math and economics, was in the Air Force before learning his eyesight would prevent him from becoming a pilot. After serving his commitment while training pilots, "I gambled for a year, then I found out what an agent was," said Harris.

Harris remembers telling his wife of 28 years, Peggy, about his plan to become an agent: "I didn't just want to be an agent," he said. "I wanted to be the agent of the leading rider."

Harris began booking mounts for Richard Sanchez, who became the leading rider on the northern California fair circuit, before they split up at the start of the 1980 Bay Meadows fall meeting. Harris became the agent for promising apprentice Chris Lamance, and a month later starting booking mounts for Baze.

"I always look at a rider's career and where he's going," Harris said.

He believed Baze had promise and liked his intelligence.

"He was going back to Washington every spring," Harris said. "It was costing him mounts in both places. I thought it would be better if he stayed here year-round."

Baze and Harris reached an agreement. If Baze finished in the top five of the jockey standings, he would ride full-time in northern California.

At that 1980 Bay Meadows meeting, Baze finished fourth, with Lamance third. Baze has finished first at every Bay Meadows or Golden Gate Fields meet he has ridden at full-time since then.

What started as a business arrangement has turned into a friendship.

"I trust his judgment," Baze said. "We get along good."

"He has a lot of faith in me, and I have a lot of faith in him," Harris said.

Of Harris, Baze said, "I realize he's not perfect, but I'm a big way from being perfect myself. He takes care of me, and not just business, but little things so I don't have to worry."

Whether it's buying doughnuts for trainers or Christmas presents, Harris takes care of it. He keeps lines of communication open with Baze about horses to ride.

Harris shrugs off what he does, saying he just does what any agent does.

"It's all about teamwork," he said.

Baze takes care of Harris, too, whether loaning him his truck for charitable deliveries, honoring workout commitments, or riding winners.

"I think I help make his job easier," Baze said. "I get along with all the trainers. He can go to just about anybody and not have to worry about them running him out of the shed row."

Teamwork is a part of that, too. When Harris says Baze will be there to work a horse, Baze is there.

"When he gives a call, that's the same as me giving my word, and I'm a man of my word," Baze said.

That philosophy is why Harris finds it easy to work for and work with Baze.

"One of his attributes is he's so humble," Harris said. "He's never gloating. Riding's what he does for a living, and he enjoys it."

One reason they work so well together and enjoy so much success is they still take nothing for granted. Baze doesn't work as many horses as he used to, but he is still at the track every morning. Harris is still handicapping and analyzing races, always trying to give Baze a live mount.

"He doesn't have to hustle a whole lot, but he does hustle when he sees a good horse," said Baze.

Those good horses have rewarded Baze and Harris handsomely.