01/01/2015 3:10PM

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.”