07/25/2012 4:23PM

Hovdey: Baze knows what's fair is fair

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Russell Baze has ridden more that 11,000 winners in his Hall of Fame career.

In terms of a well-aged vintage you can’t do much better than Russell Baze, who will be turning 54 on Aug. 7 while in the midst of competition at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa. Baze has been doing the Santa Rosa meet for so long he can’t recall his first experiences there, but that’s okay. Until he decides to stop making history he should not be required to remember it.

Of all the Northern California fairs, Santa Rosa tends to stand out. Thoroughbred racing in “wine country” has an attractive ring. There is a turf course in play to provide variety. The town of Santa Rosa boasts enough distractions for any discerning visitor, and then there’s always artsy Sebastopol, just to the west, where time stopped at around 1968 and hippies still roam free. Baze loves it.

“It’s the Saratoga of Northern California,” said Baze, which was actually a funny line, since there is already a town called Saratoga in Northern California, but you knew what he meant.

“We get the same place every year and just stay right here,” Baze said. “There’s mild weather, good facilities, and great crowds. And the turf course sets it apart, since it gives trainers that extra option for their horses.”

Of course, if anyone deserved to take a few weeks off in the summer it’s Baze. But after the long grind at Golden Gate Fields – now the only major track in Northern California – he sees the hopsctoch parade of county fair meets as a chance to shake up his routine.

“Changing the venue every couple of weeks, you’ve got to stay on your toes riding the different surfaces,” Baze noted. “And really, if I take time off I get out of shape, and it takes time to get back into riding shape, and you kind of lose your timing. It’s just easier to keep riding year-round.”

It shows. Some time next year, Baze will hit the 50,000 mark in lifetime mounts. This compares, literally, to no one. Closest to him on the all-time list of North America’s busiest jockeys are the retired notables Laffit Pincay (48,486), Earlie Fires (45,028), and David Gall (41,775). Perry Ouzts, the king of River Downs, has ridden 44,471 through July 24 and, at 57, is still going strong.

It wasn’t that long ago such accomplished jockeys as Joel Rosario and Martin Garcia spent part of their summer at Santa Rosa. Baze was asked if there are any new faces of promise in the room.

“Ronald Richard is a nice kid from Louisiana who shares my valet this year,” Baze replied. “He’s got some promise. So does Irving Orozco and Juan Sanchez – I guess they would be the top three bug riders. We’ll see.

“We might have had it easier when I was an apprentice because there were more horses and bigger fields, which gave us more opportunities to get out there and practice,” Baze added. “Now there’s not that much to go around. And you’ve got to get out there and do it. You can’t watch it and learn.”

Baze has won 11,654 races entering Wednesday’s opening-day Santa Rosa card, along with a place in the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. The total has Pincay’s 9,530 disappearing in the rearview mirror, but Baze is not alone at the top. He continues to hear footsteps at a great distance – Argentina to be exact – where the legendary Jorge Ricardo is matching Baze practically win for win.

The website Pagina de Turf dutifully records their ongoing battle. Ricardo, who is 50, is riding at Hipodromo de la Plata near Buenos Aires. Through Tuesday his career total stood at 11,692. Baze’s 217 wins this year leads the North American standings, but clearly he needs to step it up if he wants to get back to his spot as World’s No. 1.

Richard Lewis is more than happy to provide the jockey with as many opportunities as possible. As Santa Rosa’s director of racing, Lewis sweats field size and quality just as much as the guys who run the summertime shows at Monmouth, Del Mar, and Saratoga. In fact, Santa Rosa racing is so attractive, in some respects, that the leading local trainers – guys like Jerry Hollendorfer, Jeff Bonde, Ed Moger, Bill Morey and Steve Specht – find themselves juggling condition books.

“Put it this way,” Lewis said. “We can compete with Del Mar, but we can’t compete with Del Mar.”

Saturday’s program at Santa Rosa is topped by the $50,000 Horseman of the Year Stakes. The horseman to be honored is Santa Rosa attorney Jack DeMeo, who gets considerable credit for not only the fair’s expansion to 17 days but also the installation of the grass course. Fittingly, the race is for 3-year-old fillies on the turf.

Also on Saturday, co-hosts Frank Mirahmadi and Mike Patricks will be joined at their prerace handicapping seminar by none other than Russell Baze and Laffit Pincay. At that point Baze already will have ridden the first three days of the meet, including a $3,200 claimer by the name of Don’t Stop Ridin’ in the third race on Friday. He was asked if North America’s all-time leader might consider leaving such low-rung events to others.

Somebody’s got to win those races,” Baze said. “It might as well be me.”

Which is how you get to 11,654.