05/23/2001 11:00PM

Lumpkins: Meet the new boss?


SAN MATEO, Calif. - Going into the final four weeks of the Bay Meadows spring meeting, jockey Jason Lumpkins is poised to pull off possibly one of the greatest upsets in Bay Area sports history: dethroning perennial riding king Russell Baze.

Trailing Baze 20 winners to 5 early in the meeting, Lumpkins caught fire and surged into a six-winner lead, 53-47, through Wednesday's racing. Except for three years when he rode in Southern California, Baze has won every Bay Meadows and Golden Gate riding title since 1981.

Most of the time, Baze has won his titles easily, sometimes winning more than twice as many races as the second-leading rider. He has been challenged before, too, and has always responded. In 1983 at Golden Gate, Chris Lamance led Baze late in the meet, but Baze overhauled him in the final week to win 80-77.

At the 1999 Golden Gate fall meeting, Baze missed the first 15 days because of injury and Dennis Carr opened a 23-0 lead. Baze returned with 29 days left, and caught Carr in the final week, 45-41.

At the 2000 Bay Meadows winter-spring meet, apprentice Kevin Radke got hot and opened an early lead. But Baze put a quick end to his hopes, winning 72-50.

Most horsemen and handicappers believe Lumpkins offers the most serious challenge to Hall of Famer Baze, so far. "This guy can beat him," said trainer Rene Amescua, one of Baze's biggest fans and admirers. "Is he any better than Baze? No. But he's in the zone right now."

Lumpkins's agent, Dennis Patterson said the rider is like a hot hitter in baseball. "Every pitch looks like a beach ball," Patterson said. "Like my dad [trainer Dennis Patterson] says, 'He goes out there every race thinking he can't lose.' "

Trainers Jeff Bonde and John Martin both believe Lumpkins can win.

"I think it's going to be very close," Bonde said. "Russell has history and long-standing relationships, and he'll be asking the question of those people over the next 20 days. Lumpkins is a younger rider and has everything clicking right now. He has to count on his momentum to get it done. He's a good rider, very good."

Martin believes Lumpkins is as good a rider as Baze. Martin, who used to use Baze as much as possible, has been using Lumpkins more lately because Baze's agent, Ray Harris, will take off a Martin horse whenever he thinks he can get a better mount. "Now, as hot as Jason is, it might be difficult to get him too," the trainer said.

"This is no fluke. He's a tough little guy. He has good hands, and speed horses seem to carry their speed a lot further for riders with good hands. I've also noticed he can switch sticks really quick."

Perennial leading trainer Jerry Hollendorfer may hold the key to this jockey race, as he and Baze are friends and have won around 1,000 races together. But Hollendorfer insists he will not play favorites. As always, Baze will have first call on Hollendorfer horses, but the trainer said Lumpkins will be getting plenty of the others. He had not been using Lumpkins much in recent weeks, but had him named on three horses on Thursday.

"Friends have nothing to do with business," Hollendorfer said. "I try to plan things out, and if I can get Russell I'm happy. But I'm also happy with the other guys I use. When you can't get the man you want, you have to go with the hot rider. That's the rules. That's how you play the game. Besides, Jason has been beating me a lot, so why wouldn't I use him?"

Lumpkins, 31, is used to winning races. He won 14 riding titles at Thistledown in Ohio before coming here last June. Former northern California trainer Wayne McDonnell encouraged him to come here, saying he was "too good" to be riding where he was.

Although he has been here less than a year, Lumpkins clearly appreciates the significance of what he has a chance to do, and freely admits it is "really important" to him to win the title

"I think about it every day," he said. "I know there are four weeks to go. But I'm not feeling any pressure.

"If I do win, it will be a huge, huge thing for me. He's the winningest jock in the nation, and he's been the leader in percentage every year for the past six years."

Baze also says he wants to win and keep his string of titles alive. "He's riding better than I am right now," Baze said. "But there are still four weeks to go, and I'm not giving up. But I'll do better if I don't think about whether he's in front of me or not, and I'm not really going to pay all that much attention to it.

"It will be nice if I'm in front at the end. But at the end of the meet, as long as I know I did the absolute best I could, I will be happy whether I'm first or second."