01/14/2004 12:00AM

Look who's back in the saddle


ARCADIA, Calif. - In a career that began nearly 30 years ago, Russell Baze managed to ride 38,935 horses without breaking a collarbone.

Then came number 38,936 on Nov. 30 of last year, when the 4-year-old colt Snoopy Cat stumbled leaving the gate in the third race of the day at Golden Gate Fields and threw his Hall of Fame jockey to the ground. Adding injury to insult, another horse stepped on Baze in the tangle, leaving him with a painful souvenir.

"I've still got a hoof print on the left side of my chest," Baze said Wednesday from his home in the Bay Area town of Woodside. "I think at the same time I fell on my side, the horse that stepped on me got me on the other side. He mashed me pretty good. If I hadn't been wearing a vest, I don't think we'd be talking."

With all that blunt force, something had to give, and the collarbone seems to be the most common victim in such accidents. In this case, Baze's right clavicle was fractured midway between the neck and the shoulder.

"It was a clean break, but it was displaced a long ways," Baze said. "There was quite a bit of separation. The doctor manipulated the bone to where it was pretty close to its original position. But because it was so far off, it's taken a long time to fill in."

The accident abruptly ended another productive season for Baze, whose dominance of the northern California jockey scene has become mundane. Ho-hum, another 400-win year for the king of "Baze Meadows," where Russell rules and the rest of the colony gets second call.

Now Baze is ready to return, picking up where he left off, with a career win total of 8,484. (The only other active rider in the 8,000 Club is Pat Day.) Baze was scheduled for a doctor's exam Thursday, and if cleared, he said he would be heading back to morning workouts to leg up for a comeback next week.

"I've been jogging, running up and down the stairs here at home," Baze said. "But there's no substitute for riding to get fit. You can do all the aerobics to get as much air and get your legs as fit as you can. But to really fine-tune the muscle responses, you've got to get on horses.

"It's never easy getting back into shape. That's why I like to ride year-round, just taking a week off here and a week off there, but never long enough to lose my condition. This has been different, so we'll see. I'm sure it will be a little harder whipping myself back into shape."

In terms of business, losing a few weeks in January will be a drop in the bucket for Baze. He considers anything less than 400 winners "sub-par," and it has happened only once in the past 12 years. That was 1999, when he suffered a compression fracture of a vertabra.

In winning 410 races from 1,359 mounts in 2003 - for a 30.2 winning percentage - Baze won his ninth consecutive Isaac Murphy Award from the National Turf Writers Association. Clearly, when Baze retires, the award will need to be renamed. Until that time, the Murphys continue to pile up on his sideboard.

At his present rate of success, Baze could be threatening the all-time wins record, held by Laffit Pincay, sometime during the 2006 racing season. Of course, Pincay had dead aim on his personal goal of 10,000 when he fractured a vertebra in his neck last March. The injury forced Pincay's retirement and set the bar at 9,530 winners.

"There's a long way to go before I get to that," Baze said. "I'll have to get a lot closer before I even become conscious of it. And we know anything can happen."

So don't look for Baze to slack off just because he's got the northern California market cornered. Winning races by the bushel feeds his drive, and any kind of race will do.

"I'm not the kind of guy who likes sitting around in the jocks' room," he said. "If I'm going to be there, I'd just as soon be working."

In a 1988 interview with Dwight Chapin of the San Francisco Examiner, Baze was asked about his future. The jockey talked about his goal of winning 4,000 races. He speculated on a career path once his riding days were done. He insisted, in no uncertain terms, "If I make it until I'm 40 I'll be happy. I don't want to ride past that."

"Who could have guessed?" said Baze, who turned 45 last August. "Didn't Gary Stevens want to retire when he was 35?"

So what keeps Baze going? The money is nice - his horses have earned $125 million over the years - but with a wife, four children, and an agent, he is hardly shopping for a Gulfstream IV.

"It's a ton of fun," Baze said. "Exhilarating. Compared to what we do, everything else is just kind of boring. I'm sure I could find something else if I had to, but right now, this is what interests me, and it's what I enjoy doing."