04/01/2002 1:00AM

Lumpkins aims to dethrone Baze

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - In this corner, the 26-time champion: Russell Baze. In the other corner, the up-and-comer: Jason Lumpkins.

Baze has not lost a riding title at a northern California meeting he has competed in since winning his first title at the 1980-81 Bay Meadows meeting.

Last spring, Lumpkins gave Baze a his sternest challenge for a championship during the 56-day Bay Meadows spring meeting.

He built an eight-win advantage through the first 34 days of the meeting, leading 52-44. But Baze rode 51 winners during the final 21 days of the meeting to edge his rival, 95-89.

Both are ready for the Great Race II, which begins Wednesday when Bay Meadows begins its 55-day meeting.

"It will be exciting for you guys again," Baze said when asked about the possibility of another tight race.

Lumpkins, the challenger, seems more excited about the competition than the low-key Baze.

"Honestly, I think it will be another close one," Lumpkins said.

Lumpkins had to return to West Virginia last summer to serve time in a work-furlough program after a drunk driving conviction. He returned to northern California and began riding full-time on Feb. 6.

Although Baze easily won the just-concluded Golden Gate Fields meeting with 159 victories. Lumpkins finished third with 62 victories, eight behind second-place finisher Jose Arriaga, despite riding only two months. Since Lumpkins's full-time return, he has 60 victories in 273 mounts, while Baze has had 52 wins in 229 mounts.

The emphasis on the jockey standings began to get to the affable Baze last year after sitting through numerous interviews, doing a live radio hookup with Lumpkins, and posing for a variety of pictures with Lumpkins. Baze later admitted feeling frustrated early in the race when he would finish second on horses he thought would win as Lumpkins sped by him.

The two respect each other.

"I don't see any changes since last time," Baze said. "Jason rides well and gets good live mounts. He'll give me a run again."

Lumpkins said it is fun competing against Baze.

"As professional as Russell is, it's hard to express how you feel competing against him during a race," Lumpkins said. "When I pass him, I know he's giving it all he has."

Both realize the Great Race II will attract attention to a sport that cries out for more publicity. But they also realize they can both continue to enjoy success and high winning percentages only if they pay attention to business.

"I won't let it interfere with my racing," Lumpkins said. "I'm not going to change my riding. I'm not going to let pressure get to me. Don't let anyone intimidate you. Do the best you can. How it falls is how it falls, but I would promote it, try to get people out."

"It won't change anything I do," said Baze, who has reached 400 victories nine of the past 10 years. "I just go out and ride. I won't worry about it. It's like 400. I don't worry about it."

"We're both after it," Lumpkins said of the Great Race II. "I know he doesn't want to lose it. The way I look at it, I want it more. I gave him a good run last year. I know Russell's tough going in, but I'd really like to do it. I'd like to beat him and get some national recognition."

But don't count out Baze, who will miss three days of Bay Meadows's opening week because of a riding suspension.

"I have every intention of being the leading rider," he said.