02/13/2004 12:00AM

Baze only human after all


ALBANY, Calif. - The scrutiny on stars is always intense but sometimes doesn't reflect the big picture.

The return of northern California's perennial leading jockey, Russell Baze, to the races after missing nearly two months with a displaced fracture of his collarbone is one such case.

Baze, coming off what may have been his best year, has been merely mortal in the 2 1/2 weeks since his return. His career-high 30.2 win percentage in 2003 has been cut nearly in half since his return (8 for 48, 16.7 percent).

He continues to ride at a high percentage, hitting the board 58.3 percent of the time before Friday's races (48-8-13-7).

"I've felt comfortable out there," Baze said. "I've just hoped for better finishes. It took a couple days before my timing was good, before all my reflexes came back, but I've felt comfortable."

Before his return Jan. 26, Baze said he hadn't whipped right-handed in his workouts. Baze, known for his vigorous finishes, has not seemed to come home quite as strongly or use the right-handed whip as readily.

"It's your imagination," he said. "It hasn't been a problem at all."

Even in the best of times, a jockey's life seems to alternate between highs and lows - times when every horse fires and other times when nothing goes right.

"A lot of the horses I was riding, other riders got on when I was gone," Baze said. "Others were winning, and trainers don't like to take riders off after a win. It takes a while to rebuild your business, but the trainers have been very good to me. It's just a question of horses being in the right spot."

Baze has been particularly unlucky on the turf. A strong second by Hooked on Niners in the Grade 3 Brown Bess and a win by favored Devote have been his best finishes.

Pace could hurt Windscore

Baze has six mounts Sunday, including Windscore in the feature race, a six-furlong, first-level allowance.

Windscore, who has three wins in 22 starts, set a pressured pace in his debut off a claim for trainer Art Sherman last time before giving way late in a $25,000 claimer. He faces plenty of pace pressure in a race that may set up well for the sharp stalker At a Boy Luther, who was second to Stage Player at this level in his last start, on Jan. 25.

Sweet Dream, third behind Stage Player and At a Boy Luther off a 20-month layoff, could also prove tough with that race under his belt.