01/21/2005 12:00AM

For Baze, meaning beyond numbers

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ALBANY, Calif. - Milestones have become almost second nature to Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze: 5,000, 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 wins have been surpassed. Legendary riders have been left in his wake.

As he has moved up through the top 10 winningest jockeys of all time, the ever-humble Baze has maintained his perspective, sharing the spotlight with those he has passed and others he is about to pass.

The biggest milestone yet for Baze will happen any day, when he reaches and surpasses Bill Shoemaker for second on the all-time victory list. Entering Friday's card at Golden Gate, Baze had 8,827 wins, 6 short of Shoemaker's mark of 8,833 and 703 short of Laffit Pincay's record of 9,530.

For Baze, passing Shoemaker is not just another milestone.

"He's been a target we've all aimed for," Baze said. "There's nothing I can say about him that hasn't been said. Everybody knows his genius as a rider.

"I don't get sentimental or conceited, but it is a special moment."

Like Shoemaker and Pincay did, Baze grinds out victories. Baze, 46, has been a jockey for more than 30 years and durability, he said, is one quality he shares with the two riders above him on the list.

"You can't get this number without going out day after day, year after year," he said. "We're lucky, a lot of riders couldn't go as long as we have."

There is something appropriate about Baze moving past Shoemaker while riding at Golden Gate Fields. It was at Golden Gate Fields in 1949 aboard Shafter V that Shoemaker recorded the first victory of his career.

Baze competed against Shoemaker when the legend would come to northern California for stakes assignments and also in Southern California when Baze rode there for three years. Baze's father, Joe, a riding champion in northern California as well as Seattle at the old Longacres track, also rode against Shoemaker.

"I'm not the first second-generation jockey he rode against," Baze said. "He and I chatted, but it wasn't really about riding. It was usually small talk."

World Series and Super Bowl heroes often talk about preparing for their moment of glory as youngsters in their backyards, and Baze was no different when he was growing up in Washington.

Instead of throwing strikes off a garage door or catching touchdown passes, he would be in the family barn astride a bale of straw, learning balance, how to switch sticks, riding for all he was worth - and always winning.

"I was just there whaling away," he said. "Winning, but not beating anybody in particular."

Baze began riding at age 16, finishing third aboard an Appaloosa with his first mount, at the Walla Walla fair meet in Washington. He scored his first victory on Sept. 16, 1974, at Yakima Meadows aboard Oregon Warrior, who was trained by his father.

"I was tickled to death," he said. "I made $250."

After Baze passed Pat Day earlier in the Golden Gate Fields meet to move into third on the all-time victory list, his wife of 25 years, Tami, began a countdown chart on the refrigerator.

"By her count, I was only two away [from Shoemaker]," he said Wednesday. But Tami's list included several victories aboard Appaloosas that had incorrectly been listed as Thoroughbred victories. "I guess I'm already past [Shoemaker] if you count all my wins on Appys."

Because Baze has ridden mostly in northern California, some believe his name shouldn't be mentioned alongside those of Shoemaker and Pincay, who won most of their races on the stronger Southern California circuit.

Darryl Hove, a longtime chart-caller in California, has seen both Shoemaker and Baze at their peak. He thinks Baze deserves to be seen as a great rider.

"Shoemaker's domination was the greatest until Russell's here," he said. "We've been racing in northern California for nearly 70 years, and Russell's been the leading rider one-third of the time. I doubt anyone has ever come close to what Russell has done, and look at all the jockeys who came here with reputations and left because they were discouraged that they couldn't beat Russell.

"I'm not trying to take anything away from Shoe; he was the best I ever saw. Shoemaker won the majority of his races on the West Coast. He won at Hollywood Park, Del Mar, and Santa Anita as often as Russell has up here. Ironically, back then Southern California was considered inferior to New York, and some people wondered if Shoemaker could win back there."

Baze says he understands why some might feel his achievement should be minimized, but he doesn't let it bother him. To Baze, numbers are only part of the story.

"The thing I think I'm proudest of in my career is that I've never been beaten for lack of trying," he said.

Winningest Riders
As of Friday, Jan. 21

JockeyWins:
Laffit Pincay Jr.9530
Bill Shoemaker8833
Russell Baze*8827
Pat Day*8780
Dave Gall7396
Chris McCarron7141
Angel Cordero Jr.7057
Jorge Velasquez6795
Sandy Hawley6449
Larry Snyder6388

* Active