10/18/2006 11:00PM

Lots of ways to measure success

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The Russell Baze countdown begins in earnest on Saturday when the man in hot pursuit of Laffit Pincay's all-time win mark of 9,530 will be given a special tribute at Bay Meadows and immortalized with that ultimate cultural honor - the bobblehead.

"When mine first came out at Saratoga, it was a defining moment in my life," said retired Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, now a racing broadcaster for ABC/ESPN. "That's when my son felt I was somebody. 'Dad, I guess you really are famous. Only famous people have bobbleheads.' "

This is probably true, although fame can be very fleeting and defined in extremely narrow terms. Years from now, there is little doubt collectors will cherish their Nolan Ryan, Jerry Rice, Jeff Gordon, and Maria Sharapova bobbleheads, although it's hard to imagine the downstream value of bobbles depicting the likes of Greg Biffle and Chien-Ming Wang.

The Russell Baze bandwagon moves very quickly, so it's best to get on board. Dominating northern California, Russell tends to win races in great gulps. "He's how close!" Bailey exclaimed on Thursday when informed that Baze needed just 46 winners to equal the official Pincay total. Baze was shut out on Wednesday's opening-day program at Bay Meadows, but don't expect that to happen very often. With good health and just a little bit of luck, Baze could catch Pincay by early December.

If Baze could save No. 9,531 for Sunday, Dec. 10, that would provide a slick piece of history. It was on Dec.o10, 1999, that Pincay won No. 8,834 at Hollywood Park to pass Bill Shoemaker on the all-time list. There is precedent, too, for such a satisfying coincidence. John Longden broke the record of Englishman Gordon Richards on Labor Day of 1956 at Del Mar, while Shoemaker broke Longden's record on Labor Day of 1970, also at Del Mar.

With a Hall of Fame plaque and a Special Eclipse Award already safe in his collection, the 48-year-old Baze needs very little validation of his place in racing's history. Still, a Baze career topped off with a bobblehead seems fitting, even if the Bay Meadows version does make him look a little bit like comedian Martin Short.

"I wouldn't say it's exactly flattering, but it does look like him," said Tami Baze, Russell's wife and mother of their three daughters.

Beyond being bobble-worthy, only a handful of jockeys can identify with a peer like Baze, and his steady attack on one of the game's great marks. Bailey is one of them.

"I did think Laffit's would last longer - and I'm sure he did, too," Bailey noted. "But that's without realizing just how strong Russell really is.

"People will say, 'Well, he's not doing it in Southern California,' " Bailey went on. "Any time you can dominate anything for that long is pretty special. Look how many times he's won over 400 races in a year. It's phenomenal. Guys like Desormeaux and McCarron had those one or two huge years, winning over 500. But it seems when that happens, after a while the drive to be that busy subsides. Russell has never lost that."

Bailey, who retired last January, holds two records of national significance: single-season stakes wins and single-season purse earnings by his mounts. Both were set in 2003.

"I don't have any dreams of holding onto my records for long," Bailey conceded. "The thrill for me was the chase - getting to it and doing it."

Of all major riding records, the one that has stood the longest is the 598 winners posted by Kent Desormeaux in 1989. The closest brush since then was Edgar Prado's 536 in 1997.

"There will always be a situation that will offer itself again to the right individual," Desormeaux said. "All I remember is that approaching the record" - of 546, held by Chris McCarron - "it felt like it took another year to get through the last month."

Desormeaux, who is trying to establish himself in New York, admires Baze for any number of reasons.

"He's kept himself away from real serious injuries," Desormeaux pointed out. "He's been a responsible human being in maintaining his health. And he's the kind of guy who shows up for work every day. He doesn't ride the third and go home, ride the feature and go home. He rides the first and the last."

Entering Thursday's action, at the age of 35, Desormeaux had 4,669 career winners. When Baze was 35, at the end of the 1993 season, his total had reached only 4,334.

Unlike Baze, however, Desormeaux opted for the Big City and spent 15 years riding in Southern California, banging heads with a room full of Hall of Famers. The rewards included two Kentucky Derby winners, two Breeders' Cup trophies, and an Eclipse Award in 1992. Desormeaux concedes, though, that the Pincay and Baze totals are not in the cards.

"I could say that I could have done it, or anyone else could have done it, but we didn't," he said. "Who can say they could stay that good for that long? That's an amazing feat."

And now a bobblehead, something even Hall of Famer Desormeaux never has achieved.

"Well, there you have it," Kent said, unable to hide the disappointment in his voice. "The difference in Russell's career and my career, in a nutshell."