01/25/2011 3:23PM

Baze making his name known at Oaklawn


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – With a last name like Baze, it would seem safe to assume that Michael Baze was always headed toward a career as a jockey. But that was not necessarily the case for the rider whose second cousin, Russell Baze, is the all-time winningest jockey in North America; whose first cousin, Tyler Baze, is a mainstay in Southern California; and whose uncle and aunt, Gary and Vicky Baze, are veteran riders.

“I might have been the only one not to grow up around horses,” said Michael Baze, 23. “My best friend and I were going to be Marines.”

But as pedigree would have it, Baze is now a seasoned pro in the saddle. A winner of 890 races and $31 million in mount earnings since launching his career in 2003, the Washington native is contending for the Oaklawn title in his first season at the track. The local colony is one of the deepest in years, and Baze heads into Thursday’s card second in the standings, sandwiched between leader Cliff Berry and two-time defending Oaklawn champ Terry Thompson.

“The first week here I rode seven and won three, so that was a pretty good start off,” Baze said. “And it’s getting better and better. I’m getting to ride for more and more people.”

Baze has won 6 races from 27 mounts two weeks into the meet, including last weekend’s $75,000 Pippin. He has quickly established a rapport with a broad base of stables, and to date has won races for such trainers as Steve Asmussen, Tim Ice and Lynn Whiting.

“Everyone seemed to really accept him and really embrace him being here,” said Jay Fedor, who is Baze’s agent. “I’m getting a lot of favorable phone calls right now.”

Baze won the Arlington Park title this past fall, and from there rode at Keeneland and Churchill Downs before the decision was made to winter at Oaklawn.

“We were looking at our options and what to do and Jay had a lot of connections here,” Baze said. “Last year, he had Corey Nakatani here. He had a lot of good contacts.”

Baze began getting on racehorses at 15, at the behest of Dennis Ward, the father of trainer Wesley Ward. The young jockey eventually made a name for himself in Southern California, winning a Hollywood Park and Del Mar title in 2007. But not long afterward, Baze was injured and around the same time jockeys Garrett Gomez and Rafael Bejarano moved into Southern California.

“It made it tough to get my business back when I didn’t win right away,” said Baze.

Baze said his agent at the time, Ron Ebanks, helped him secure an opportunity in Chicago, to ride for Arlington trainer Wayne Catalano. And so last April, Baze headed to the Midwest and at that point, the Chicago-based Fedor took over Baze’s book. Baze, whose top mounts have included Mi Sueno, with whom he won the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante in 2009, said his goal is to finish in the top three in the standings at Oaklawn.

“I’m hoping it goes that way,” he said. “There’s a ton of good riders in the room.”

There’s also a lot of good riders named Baze.

Morse winning at feverish pace

Randy Morse is tied with D. Wayne Lukas atop the trainer standings at Oaklawn after winning with 4 of his first 9 starters at the meet. And things could get even sweeter for Morse on Thursday. He has three horses entered, and all fit well. Wilson River, in fact, looks like best-bet material in the seventh.

“I came into here with horses with a lot of conditions, and that’s what we’ve won,” Morse said. “I just have horses that fit in the right spots.”

Morse has 26 horses in training at Oaklawn, but for the first time since 2005 the Grade 2-winning handicap horse Jonesboro is not part of the stable. He retired last fall with earnings of $1.5 million, and is to stand stud this year in Arkansas.

“I sure miss seeing him in that first stall,” said Morse.

But the barn still has a handicap horse this year in multiple stakes winner Kate’s Main Man, who was third to Win Willy in the $75,000 Fifth Season at Oaklawn on Jan. 16. Morse said the horse could make his next start in the $100,000 Essex at Oaklawn on Feb. 5, a race that Jonesboro won in 2007.

Other quality horses Morse has at Oaklawn this meet include an unraced 3-year-old colt by Badge of Silver.

Borel to return Thursday

Jockey Calvin Borel, who was off most of his mounts on Sunday, was sidelined by the flu but will be back riding on Thursday, according to his agent, Jerry Hissam.

◗ Jockey Terry Thompson, who was suspended three days for a riding infraction Jan. 16, has appealed the ruling, according to his agent, Kenny Washburn.