02/02/2005 12:00AM

Baze so young to be so good


ARCADIA, Calif. - By age 22, at least among American youth, certain milestones have been memorably achieved. First car, first kiss, first delinquency notice on a college loan - they all become pieces of life's eternal puzzle, with more to follow.

Tyler Baze, a jockey now for more than a quarter of his young life, experienced one of those major moments last Saturday at Santa Anita Park when he deftly guided Star Over the Bay to a front-running victory in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf. It was a polished piece of work, true to the creed of the legendary Johnny Longden, who loved to be out there winging or, as he put it, "Making them go where you've already been."

Star Over the Bay was coming off a break dating back to the Breeders' Cup Turf in late October, when he fired early then faded on deep ground at Lone Star Park. Baze was a frustrated passenger that afternoon, helpless as the energy drained from his mount with every anxious stride. Baze recalled the sad sight of a horse who had just lost for the first time in more than four months.

"It was amazing how he knew," Baze said. "After the race, he was hanging his head, like he was saying, 'Aw, man, I'm sorry.' "

All was forgiven, and then some, in the Sunshine Millions Turf. Star Over the Bay reasserted himself as California's top grass galloper - with a range from nine to 11 furlongs - after his half-length victory over A to the Z. The jockey insists there is no secret to getting the most from his gray companion.

"I just don't fight with him," Baze said as he prepared to go to work Wednesday afternoon. "I let him go out there and do his own thing. If he does that, he's happy. He won't run off, he'll relax. And then if they come to him - man, what heart. It's really cool to be around an animal like him."

Baze did not let the moment pass without sharing the event. While galloping out after the race, he ended up alongside Gary Stevens, his uncle by a former marriage, who had ridden Continental Red to a fourth-place finish.

"He had tears in his eyes," Stevens recalled. "He said, 'Uncle G., that's the biggest race I've ever won.' "

Stevens has delighted in bearing close witness to the trajectory of his nephew's brief career. Unlike Stevens, who was an established star in the Northwest before setting up shop in Southern California 20 years ago, Baze has learned his trade in the crucible of Santa Anita, Hollywood, and Del Mar, with forays to Turf Paradise while still an apprentice.

"I would say he's three years ahead of where I was at his age," said Stevens, who turns 42 in March. "But he's had the advantage of being here in the big time from the start.

"At this point, you're talking about a rider who's improving every day," Stevens went on. "He's studious, he pays attention, and he learns. He sort of had the reputation as a speed rider early on, but that's behind him now. And a lot of that is because of the horses they send you. When you're known as someone who can get them out of the gate and carry their speed, that's the role you're chosen for. Once people see you can ride other types of horses, everything starts coming your way."

Stevens also watches Baze on the ground.

"He reminds me a lot of Shoe in the jocks' room," Stevens said, referring to the unflappable demeanor of the late Bill Shoemaker. "You wouldn't know he's in there. You wouldn't know if he's just won a $500,000 race or got beat a nose when he comes back. He just goes on to the next race."

As Wednesday's action began, Baze was locked in hot pursuit of Rene Douglas at the top of the Santa Anita standings. Only two wins separated them, and it probably would have been closer without Baze's three-day suspension for a minor riding infraction last month. Baze did not appeal his days.

Besides, the mini-break gave him a chance to kick back at home on his half-acre in a canyon high above Arcadia. Baze bought the place three years ago - in California, we like them involved in real estate early - and he has turned it into his refuge from the storm.

"It reminds me of home," said Baze, who was raised on a farm near Seattle. "I got deer, and bears, raccoons - all the wildlife I can handle. I'm not going to lie. I really don't like Southern California. There's way too many people. It takes two hours just to get home when we're riding at Hollywood. Coming home to a place like this keeps me sane."

Baze shares his digs with a black Labrador named Cowboy, a Queensland Blue Heeler named Rawhide, and a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel named Charlotte, better known as daddy's girl.

"Got her at Christmas," Baze said. "She's my lap dog."

Baze has been working hard to keep his gang in Kibbles 'n Bits. Only Douglas has ridden more horses at the current meet. Sometime in the next few weeks, Baze should attain another milestone when he rides winner number 1,000 (he was at 982 entering Wednesday). That will leave him about 3,800 shy of Uncle Gary, not to mention three Kentucky Derbies and a place in the Hall of Fame. But so what? For Tyler, there is still plenty of time.