Updated on 09/17/2011 10:59PM

Challenge Baze? Garcia has the tools

Vassar Photography
Apprentice Martin Garcia has won at a 22-percent clip in 2005.

SAN MATEO, Calif. - Bay Meadows is frequently referred to as Baze Meadows, given the dominance of Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze.

But more than a few people believe that Baze's streak of 25 straight Bay Meadows riding titles could be in jeopardy at the 31-day holiday meeting that opened Monday. Why? The presence of talented apprentice rider Martin Garcia.

Catching Baze won't be easy. Baze opened the meet by winning three races, but Garcia answered with two. For the year, Garcia had won 41 of 185 races through Monday, a 22 percent win rate, with mount earnings of $558,938. Baze had won with a spectacular 30 percent (367) of his 1,223 mounts.

Garcia is riding regularly for high-percentage trainers such as John Martin and Steve Miyadi. He's also picking up mounts for Jerry Hollendorfer and Art Sherman, northern California's winningest trainers.

"It's a short meet, so anything can happen," said jockey agent Dennis Patterson. "Garcia is getting on some live horses for some top barns, so he might have a good shot to pull off an upset if he avoids suspensions and injuries."

The 20-year-old Garcia, who came to the U.S. three years ago from Veracruz, Mexico, won his first race last summer at the Bay Meadows Fair. He was third in the Bay Meadows fall meet standings behind Baze and Roberto Gonzalez when he suffered a concussion in a spill on Sept. 23. He finished eighth at the recently completed Golden Gate Fields meeting with 19 winners, despite missing the first six weeks.

Baze is impressed with Garcia's demeanor and his way around horses.

"He's not unschooled around horses," Baze said. "He keeps his head about him, and he's got the right temperament.

"He's a great rider who'll do very well."

Gonzalez and trainers Lloyd Mason and Hollendorfer all use the term "natural" when talking about Garcia.

"Horses run for him," Gonzalez said. "I don't know if he knows what he's doing or is just a natural. He's learning quicker than most bug boys. He sits on a horse good. He pays attention and listens."

"He could be great," Mason said. "He could go a long way if he's handled right."

Trainer Jeff Bonde compares Garcia to Victor Espinoza, who began his career in northern California and is now a leading rider down south.

"He's got that X factor that a lot of riders don't have," Bonde said. "He just wins races."

Garcia hasn't been in the game for long. He was working at Chicago's Metropolitan Deli near his home in Pleasanton, Calif., in the spring of 2004 when he convinced the restaurant's owner, Terri Terry, to let him accompany her to see her show horse. That summer, he went to the racetrack for the first time, and soon he began galloping racehorses. He began his riding career this past summer.

""I never thought I'd be a jockey," said Garcia. "I just liked to gallop her horse. Later, I came to watch the races last year. I liked the place, and I wanted to learn, so I started to gallop and jog horses."

Garcia has no problem keeping his weight down. He weighs 106 pounds and can take full advantage of his seven-pound weight allowance.

One of Garcia's strengths, trainers and other riders point out, is his patience on a horse. He doesn't panic if he finds himself off the pace.

"He waits till the right moment," Gonzalez said.

Said Garcia, "They tell me you have to have patience on a horse."

Other attributes that make him a potential top rider include his outgoing personality and his work ethic - he gets on many horses in the morning and is no stranger to film sessions in the jockeys' room.

He comes in to watch films every day and really wants to learn," said former jockey Gary Lawless, who helps run the film sessions. "He isn't like most bug boys when he uses the stick, either. He does it very naturally and doesn't lose anything."

He also has sensitive hands, something a rider needs to finesse a 1,000-pound animal around the track.

"I like to get him on fillies because he's light, and he has light hands," said Steve Sherman, assistant to his father, Art.

Garcia, whose mounts are booked by Espinoza's former agent Roger Olguin, has had two stakes mounts, somewhat of a rarity for such an inexperienced apprentice because there is no weight allowance given in stakes. He finished second in the Angel Island aboard Lunachick earlier this month and was fifth and last on longshot My Creed in the Holiday Turf Handicap on Monday.

"I want to be on stakes horses," Garcia said. "It feels real good."

Beating Baze would be a big boost, but Garcia's goal for the upcoming meet is "learning more and more and more."

During his northern California reign, Baze has had to overcome challenges from top apprentices such as Espinoza and Jose Valdivia Jr. He wouldn't be surprised if Garcia becomes the latest young rider to threaten his streak of riding titles.

"If anybody can do it, he can," Baze said.