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Hovdey: For Baze, just another day at the office
For a while there on New Year’s Eve, it looked as if Russell Baze would end his 13th championship season on a meek note after a second straight racing day without a winner.
To be fair, it had happened to Baze before, going 50 whole hours without winning a race, although no one could remember exactly when. For more than 20 years, there has been a machine-like quality to the performances of Baze, a numbing reliability that puts him more in the category of a public utility than a cog in a gambling apparatus. Water running? Lights on? Baze in front? Okay, life goes on.
Anyway, Baze already had nailed down that 13th title by entering the last card of the year nine wins ahead of Javier Castellano, 323-314. Castellano added a winner at Gulfstream on Wednesday and took his final shower of 2014 content in the knowledge that he was the clear-cut champ on the money list for the second straight year.
As for Baze out West, the season came down to a $4,000 claiming race at 5 1/2 furlongs aboard the 9-year-old gelding Trumpet Player Jay, named lo these many years ago for Santa Anita Park hornblower Jay Cohen. Doing business these days for Jerry and Janet Hollendorfer and their longtime partner, George Todaro, Trumpet Player Jay was on a precipitous drop from a $20,000 tag, having lost his last 10 races.
You know the ending. Baze and his old battler hugged the rail while a couple of energetic 3-year-olds set a fast pace, then they slipped through inside and held on to win by a head. The announced attendance was 780 people, although there was no tally on how many hung around to bet on Russell the Muscle in the nightcap before heading out on the town.
Such a crowd count begs comparisons to trees falling in forests without anyone there to bear witness. Trumpet Player Jay gave Baze a record of 12,443 wins, a total hard to grasp and even harder to properly appreciate, almost all of it having been accomplished in Northern California, and in front of fewer and fewer fans.
The facile reaction, therefore, is to dismiss the Baze numbers as a product of nothing more than the longevity of a big fish in a small, geographically isolated pond. To a certain extent, this is legitimate. Baze usually is mentioned in the same breath with David Gall, Carl Gambardella, Larry Snyder, and other jockeys who ran up big numbers while dominating small-market tracks.
Still, there is no getting past the physical component of winning a horse race, not to mention the inherent danger lurking each time a jockey gets a leg up. They are not trainers who can “saddle” horses at three different tracks on an afternoon, adding to their totals in absentia. Their presence is required, and the same riding skills that can lead to victory in a Breeders’ Cup race can be evident in a field of well-matched $10,000 claimers.
To place Baze’s 13th national championship in perspective, the next closest in number of titles as leading race winner is Pat Day, with six. Bill Shoemaker retired with 15 titles overall – 10 in purses and five in wins – which at least gives Baze something to shoot for. After all, he gets no prize for the title, no trinket for the mantel, no engraved belt buckle.
“I get a nice pat on the back and a hearty well done,” Baze said from the Golden Gate jocks’ room.
It was New Year’s Day, and with seven mounts in the nine races, Baze was hoping to start 2015 just as he’d finished 2014. There was a good chance that more than 780 would turn out for the holiday card, but that’s not Baze’s job.
“I think everybody is upbeat about the outlook for the coming year,” Baze said. “The purses here seem to be holding pretty good. There seems to be a good supply of horses. The vets and everybody responsible are doing a good job of making sure they go over there sound. And we have two excellent race surfaces.”
Baze is a regular in the orbit of Shared Belief, the once-beaten winner of the recent Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita who is the king of Jerry Hollendorfer’s Golden Gate stable.
“The last time I was on his back, he worked real good, just before the Malibu, although nobody could really tell how good because of all the fog that morning,” Baze said. “Then he went down and won the race the way he was supposed to. I don’t know if Mike had more horse left or if it was that close of a margin because those other horses were closer to his ability at that distance. He did win, and that was the main thing.”
Baze rode Shared Belief in his first race of 2014 – a sprint at Golden Gate against older runners – and is usually aboard for his workouts, while Mike Smith does the honors in the afternoon for major races out of town. It was noted that Smith is about 7,000 winners behind Baze, in case anyone is counting.
“Jerry’s got partners in the horse, and I can’t fault them for choosing Mike,” Baze said. “Everybody knows what an excellent rider he is. And why pay to ship a guy in when you’ve got a guy like him right there?”
Then again, Baze might pay his own way anywhere to ride Shared Belief.
“And I’d be way ahead,” he added.
Baze will turn 57 in August. He was asked if there have been concessions to age, or any traces of boredom with a job he has been doing since 1974.
“Everybody gets bored occasionally,” he said. “But not during the races. With three days off, I exercise a little more to be ready for the four days we do race. Fortunately, there’s no new injuries to deal with – everything seems to be holding.”
And the numbers keep adding up.
“I really don’t think about it much,” he said. Then he paused.
“But when I do stop to consider,” Baze added, “it’s just an insane number of wins.”
He is amazing. I don't know many as competitive as Russell is. To outride kids half his age consistently speaks volumes. I hope he retires soon only because I fear he is going to get hurt and would hate to see that..
The longevity and consistency are astounding - unheard of - and to be riding as well as he is at 57 is a mind blower. And it is also true he would not have put up such amazing #s in SoCal - even with good mounts. He's just not as gifted as the top jocks - even Victor Espinoza and Martin Garcia who began at NorCal are more gifted than Russell. And I am not mentioning Mike Smith, Kent D., Bejarano, Rosario, or a # of east coast jocks. But Russell knew what he could do and he has made in into an institution. The ability to avoid serious injury is a part of the story, the work ethic, the willingness to ride the hair off a 5k claimer. And while there have been plenty of short fields - try coming to Golden Gate and betting against him in a 10 horse field when he goes off at 4-1 or better and see how many times you end up ripping tickets. The point is not to compare Baze to other jocks but simply to appreciate what he is - Russell was able to do this himself and as noted above - he's had a bit of success
Obviously Baze would not have amassed such a large wiin total if he rode on a major circuit .But the volume of wins is an incredible feat to accomplish on any circuit.Also Baze would have been successful in SoCal if he hung in there longer.To think he couldn't ride with that colony is ludicrous.Living and raising his family in beautiful NorCal and riding contenders in every race is more important to him.Whenever he rode my horse or any i witnessed he always gives an honest ride.I can't say that about too many.Also the incredible thing about his streak he has been Teflon coated from major injuries.One of the Good Guys in racing.
Those who always belittle other people's accomplishments are those who who have never accomplished anything.
Most jocks wish they had his record no mater where he rode, the danger is the same, only his skill got him there. I would like to see him hang it up and really sit back and watch those want to bee's try and catch him. he has good habits and certainly don't need the money, RUSS I say thanks and have a great life. YOU have done your best for the sport.
you seemed to miss the point Chuck, if he was such a top notch jockey, he would have been included with Pincay, Shoemaker and the others and would have been one of the best, he just couldnt do it. out here and took his tack and settled in a position of riding 5-6 horse fields, nothing wrong with that and winning over 12,000 races is impressive, but he never would have done it if he gutted it out here is socal
Yes, Russell gave Southern California a try in the 80's and could not win races as he had in Northern California. Let's see, Pincay, Shoemaker, MaCarron, Eddie D, and Pat Valenzuela were all riding at their peaks. How many good mounts do you think were available for the rest of the guys? I can tell you I won a number of large bets on Russell when he brought home a number of 10-1 and 20-1 shots. It reminds me of when Pat Day rode at Gulfstream for a couple of years in the winter. Imagine, catching Pat on 6-1 and 10-1 shots. Don't kid yourself, Russell winning over 12,000 races is no fluke.
He is so over rated. The king of 4 to 6 horse fields. He tried to ride out here in socal in the 80's and could not hold the other jockeys jock strap and headed back up north where it was easier. Can't blame him for that but for all the races he has won he only ranks 15th in money won. Is he the king of cheap claimer, yes....he is a money jockey "no", if he was he would have been popular among other trainers for the big races.
What Russell Baze has been doing against riders less than half his age...is truly amazing. He personifies qualities all should admire as he gives the same effort on cheap claimers as well as stakes horses. While he is often lauded he deserves even more credit than he's received. He's always friendly with fans and represents what's best in this business...Steven Millner