12/10/2008 1:00AM

Latest break another hurdle for Baze

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Tyler Baze, you've just capped a banner 2008 season by breaking four ribs and cracking your shoulder in a tumble at Hollywood Park. What are you going to do now?

Vegas, baby! Where else?

Baze was in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning, scene of the National Finals Rodeo, nursing his wounds and enjoying a little rest and relaxation along with the broncs, the bulls, and his bride, Christina. Baze is a cowboy at heart, with belt buckles the size of manhole covers and a Stetson for every occasion. Call his cell number and you get the operatic tones of Tim McGraw wailing "How Bad Do You Want It?" Baze wasn't about to let a few banged-up bones make him miss his annual pilgrimage to the summit of the rodeo world. Besides, there probably were guys out there playing a lot more hurt than he was.

Baze's initial reaction to the damage done by the freakish crash last Friday - in which a maiden filly bolted over the inner rail after finishing second in a turf sprint - was sadness and disappointment. Since they have no contracts and no teams for support, there is no good time for a jockey to disappear from view. The idea of the talented Alpha Kitten running in Saturday's Grade 1 Starlet Stakes without him was heartbreaking. At least Baze was encouraged to hear a physician's verdict that as long as he could handle the pain, he should be able to be back in the saddle in time for the opening of the Santa Anita meet on Dec. 26.

Ah, but the pain of broken ribs is exquisite. Athletes of all shapes and sizes will swear that nothing compares. Ronnie Ebanks, Baze's agent, vividly recalls his experience with mauled ribs during a career that was otherwise blessedly free of major injury.

"It was at Turf Paradise," Ebanks said. "I went down, and the horse came over me and hit me with his knee in my face and my ribs. As soon as my eye opened back up so I could see, I rode three or four days later, with an elastic support they wrapped around me. I was leading rider, so I didn't want to give that up. In between races, I'd take off that elastic wrap to breathe, then put it back on. I don't ever remember having more pain in my life."

Baze, a resilient 26, can sympathize. Breathing isn't so bad, he said, and he can gently clear his throat without too much of a twinge. But a cough or a belch is out of the question. And a sneeze? Don't ask.

"I had to sneeze once yesterday," Baze said. "It about killed me."

Baze has been consulting with Dr. Dan Capen, the orthopedic surgeon and horse owner who has put any number of jockeys back together. Baze hopes to get the green light to begin light exercise this weekend. And while estimates of recovery time for jockey injuries are notoriously optimistic, if Baze says he'll be back by Santa Anita, don't bet against him.

Through the first years of his career, beginning as a precocious teenager, Baze led a roller-coaster existence of great highs and dismal lows. He won the Eclipse Award for leading apprentice of 2000, then matured to take the riding title at the 2004 Hollywood Park summer meet. A year later, battling weight in all the wrong ways, he failed a pre-race Breathalyzer test at Hoosier Park, where he had gone to ride a contender in the $500,000 Indiana Derby.

In early May 2007, the young rider stepped away in self-imposed exile to deal with the effects of malnutrition and alcohol abuse. Baze came back strong later that summer, with Ebanks handling his book, and since then he has established himself as one of the most reliable go-to riders on the Southern California circuit.

The 2008 season certainly has tested his resolve. He finished third to Rafael Bejarano at both the Santa Anita and Del Mar meets, but he narrowly escaped a bad ending on opening day of the Fairplex Park meet when his mount went through a rail. A few weeks later, he injured a toe when stepped on by a fractious horse while unsaddling. The potential of a memorable Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita was dashed when Baze was replaced aboard eventual winner Midshipman in the Juvenile and his contender Cost of Freedom was a vet scratch from the Sprint.

Still, it is to Baze's credit that he prefers to dwell on 2008 victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup with Mast Track, the Del Mar Futurity with Midshipman, and the Ancient Title with Cost of Freedom, as well as a pair of stakes with the talented 2-year-old filly Evita Argentina.

"It's tough losing all the business and all the horses I have right now," Baze said. "I'm not worried about it, though. I'll handle it well, and I know that I'll get back the really good horses. I'm riding for some very good people."

When Baze went down, he was fresh from a victory in the $400,000 Citation Handicap aboard Hyperbaric and tied for second in the Hollywood Park standings, with a bead on leader Bejarano.

"The season was great, and Hollywood was really rolling," Baze said. "We were looking forward to a big finish to the meet, but the finish just came a little early."