06/30/2011 10:32AM

Michael Baze's death a wake-up call for racing

Photo courtesy of Baze family
Jockey Michael Baze and his mother, Teri Gibson, after he scored the first victory of his career May 3, 2003, when he was 16. Baze died of an accidental drug overdose May 10.

Teri Gibson had seen it all before. Her ex-husband, Mike Baze, was a jockey, a rider from a family of riders whose career burned out in a haze of alcohol and drugs when he was ruled off the track in the late 1980s. Gibson, who is estranged from her husband, determined that the first of her three children, Michael, would live differently. She took him away from the track when he was 2, and Michael Baze had a traditional childhood. He played sports, had nice friends, never got into trouble. An easy kid. A great kid, his mother said.

Michael had only a passing relationship with his father but still found a way to emulate him. Partway through his 16th year, Baze began riding in earnest and began a career as a jockey in 2003. Before he even became a legal drinker, Baze won a riding title in 2007 at Hollywood Park.

Eight weeks ago, on May 10, Baze was found dead in his Cadillac Escalade on the Churchill Downs backstretch. He was 24. A toxicology report cited an accidental overdose of cocaine and oxymorphone, a prescription pain reliever.

Baze might have had a genetic predisposition to addiction. He was prone to depression. As a child, he had trouble sleeping. But Gibson said she thinks he might not be gone had he not become a jockey.

“Honestly, no, I don’t,” she said. “I don’t for the simple fact he didn’t get involved until he was 15 and a half. I never would have expected him to go in that direction.”

Baze is one of a disproportionate number of jockeys to struggle with alcohol or drugs or make unhealthy lifestyle decisions. Attempts to establish a safety net and provide education to minimize the incidence of troubled riders have not been effective. Among professional athletes, jockeys may be especially susceptible to addiction. Riders who are successful at an early age are in a position more analogous to the entertainment industry than other professional sports, which have centralized authority to maintain support systems. Until a few decades ago, apprentice riders signed contracts with trainers and became part of a stable. Now a teenage jockey might have only his agent watching his back.

Jockey Michael Baze's first career victory - Hollywood Park - May 3, 2003. More replays »

Baze’s death was not the only recent disclosure of a rider in trouble. Earlier this year, Robby Albarado in Kentucky and Eibar Coa in Florida were arrested after alleged incidents of domestic violence. Ramsey Zimmerman remains in an Iowa jail after allegedly being caught with drugs. Kent Desormeaux failed a Breathalyzer test at Woodbine last summer and sought counseling for alcohol abuse. And those are just the episodes that became public.

“It’s a very stressful, up-and-down world, the racetrack,” Gibson said. “People think jockeys go out and ride a horse for a couple minutes, that they make a ton of money for doing nothing. They don’t understand any of the back side of it.”

Baze drank alcohol in moderation before he turned 21, but he concentrated on riding, got to work on time, and stayed focused. Once of legal age, however, the drinking increased, and with it, Baze’s difficulties. A DUI at Del Mar in 2009. Some rehab. A troubled marriage, a darkening reputation, and a move from the California circuit last year to Chicago. Baze’s shadow followed. He had a good summer at Arlington, but only after a couple of trainers sensed problems and issued ultimatums. Gibson flew in for a stay at one point because of Baze’s drinking, but Baze kept his head above water through Arlington, when a change of venue and routine sent him spiraling last fall.

“I didn’t know how bad things had gotten until his agent called me from Arkansas,” Gibson said.

Gibson spent two months last winter with her son in Hot Springs, where Baze was riding the Oaklawn Park meet. Baze was into more than drinking. Last fall, he had been arrested in Louisville for cocaine possession. Gibson convinced Baze to go into counseling, and during sessions, she said, “all the things he had done just came out.” Back in Kentucky this spring, Baze was between agents after the Keeneland meet in April. His girlfriend lived hours away in Chicago. His younger brother Roddy stayed with him after Gibson returned home to Tacoma, Wash., but now Roddy had gone, too.

“He would get bored really quick,” Gibson said, “and then when he’s sitting there by himself and he’s bored, he starts thinking too much. The thing is, I talked to him the night before it happened. He was coming back from Indiana. He had a new agent, he had a bunch of workers the next day. He sounded real good, he seemed real happy. The coke – he said he had bought some, but didn’t even use it.”

As a jockey, Baze found himself alone with his demons much of the time. A young team-sport player who becomes a professional immediately is swept into an institutional hierarchy. There is a league with a centralized authority overseeing all the players, and a team with an interest in watching over and caring for its own. The National Basketball Association, for instance, requires all first-year players to attend a rookie transition program, a three-day crash course in the non-athletic side of the profession, with classes in finance, law, drugs, sexual health, and sessions with veteran and ex-players who tell the kids how it is. The message, while it doesn’t penetrate every personality, is at least conveyed to the players. Major League Baseball doesn’t send every new player through such a program, but it does reach many of its youngsters through the Rookie Career Development Program, which is held every January. Players expected to make the major leagues for the first time in the upcoming season are given training in financial management, media relations, fan relations, and lifestyle issues. The first day of the program is dedicated specifically to Spanish-speaking players.

Racing, though, has no central authority, no teams, and no comparable means of introducing young riders to the ways of their world. The roughly 1,800 riders around North America often are thrust into the profession with sparse knowledge of the risky environment they’ve come to inhabit.

“We don’t have anything in place like that,” said Jeff Johnston, Midwest representative for the Jockeys’ Guild. “They come into the industry from so many angles. We generally don’t see the riders until they actually start riding. Once they get their license that’s when they come onto our radar.”

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Johnston said some racing jurisdictions require more of new jockeys than others.

“Some states make you sit with the stewards, with the gate crews, go to the outriders, make sure you really know what you’re doing,” he said. “Other states, you just get licensed.”

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds on their own present a dicey proposition in the best of circumstances. Throw in sudden riches and minor fame, a cast of potentially exploitative characters floating in the background, the pressure and physical stress of professional race-riding, and you have an explosive mixture.

“I was a loose horse a part of the time,” said Jerry Bailey, who had to overcome alcoholic tendencies before his Hall of Fame career took off. Bailey had it better than many young riders, too. The son of a dentist, he came from a solid middle-class background, had finished high school, and went to a semester of college. “I had an advantage on a lot of people, and I still fell in with the wrong guys.”

Jockeys face a third absent region when compared to professional team sports – teammates.

“It’s a totem pole business: You knock someone off and climb up,” Bailey said. “You trust no one. It’s difficult to find a friend-slash-mentor because there are no teammates. It’s weird to cohabitate, dress shoulder to shoulder, and it’s not all for one, one for all.”

Garrett Gomez, who lost several years of his career to substance abuse, had a similar experience.

“When you’re young, you think everyone is out to get you,” he said. “You’re always watching your back. You think a guy’s your friend and he’s stabbing you in the back with another trainer. Being so young, it’s hard to understand who is and who isn’t doing that.”

A similar dynamic works through other individual professional sports, but racing differs, Bailey said.

“Tennis, golf, maybe you don’t see the degree of cooperation, but that’s individual talent,” he said. “They’re not trying to take your talent from you. In racing, they’re trying to take your mount.”

Baze, quiet and inward-turning by nature, felt the code of secrecy when he first had issues in Southern California.

“You really are pretty much on your own,” Gibson said. “If you open up to the wrong people, word gets round. There was even a person who he thought was a really good friend and he opened up to him, and pretty soon the whole racetrack was talking about it.”

Baze avoided one major area of jockey stress: He was a natural lightweight who could eat as he pleased. Constant dieting, purging, and sweating to make weight wears down many riders over time. And there is the danger factor. Jockeys don’t outwardly express fear, but theirs is among the most dangerous games, and that knowledge, spoken or not, always creeps somewhere around the psyche.

“It’s a tough game,” said Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockey’s Guild. “I went down to Fair Grounds this winter, and they have holy water. All these jocks make the sign of the cross when they go out there. Deep down, I’m sure they know what they can face, whether it be loss of life, paralysis.”

Every person who gets a leg up for a Thoroughbred race has to grapple with these terms.

“Drinking, drugs, whatever, we’ve got a stressful job,” said Gerard Melancon, a 42-year-old Louisiana rider who overcame cocaine addiction to mold a solid career. “Every jockey has issues, has some weak spot on him. Mentally, just think about our job, about what we do.”

Melancon dropped out of high school to start riding. “I took off really fast,” he said, winning races and cash in bunches at age 16. Melancon said he comes from a family with a history of addiction. The money, the notoriety, a sketchy group of hangers-on soon had him moving into a dark place.

Gomez said the day-to-day of a rider’s life only enhances the susceptibility to drinking, drug use, and instability.

“At 16, 17, 18 years old, you wake up with an adrenaline rush, you have an adrenaline rush all day long, and then you’re supposed to go home and act normal?” he said. “When your body’s introduced to that, I was always looking to have that same feeling I had all day. Why couldn’t I go home and sit and watch TV like a normal person?”

For the most part, there are few people around to answer such questions, or to even encourage a young, successful rider to ask them.

“When you’re making that kind of money, usually the people closest to you are dependent on you for a livelihood,” Bailey said.

Those people often have an interest in keeping a rider riding and earning. And racing, decentralized and splintered, has so far failed to implement a mental health system that would give riders – and all racetrack people in trouble, for that matter – a chance to nip risky behavior in the bud.

Seventy-five-year-old Kentuckian Dr. Curtis Barrett, a clinical and forensic psychologist, was part of an effort to create such a system about 20 years ago. Barrett founded the Winner’s Federation – the Winners Foundation is a California-based counterpart – in 1993, a program born from the substance-abuse committee of the American Horse Council. In 1989, building tycoon and racehorse owner Jim Ryan gave $1 million to help start up counseling programs at racetracks across the country. There were other substantial donors to the charity-based programs, and in the early 1990s, Barrett said, 54 tracks had begun establishing counseling programs for racetrackers.

“Only a few of them are still operating today, and many are operating hand to mouth,” said Barrett, who co-authored the book “Winners!”, based on his experience counseling at the racetrack.

“I’ve come to call [racing] the two-minute industry,” Barrett said. “Everything is focused around the two minutes or so of a race. When that is over, things tend to get forgotten.”

The Winner’s Federation long ago conducted extensive studies of mental health problems and addiction within the racing industry, Barrett said. The findings are unsurprising: The racetrack presents a risk-laden environment for its participants.

“The schedule of work, the dead time, the kind of opportunities that are available, it’s been a long struggle to even develop quality recreation programs,” Barrett said. “But risky environments are not unusual. The question is whether there’s an intelligent support system that makes sure there are no risks other than those that are necessary. I’m military in my background. We know that handling ammunition on a ship is an inherently risky thing, and we try to get rid of all the risk it’s possible to get rid of. That’s not done in horse racing. Jockeys are often subjected to risks they’re not required to take, not just physically, but mentally. You have to handle ammunition in the Navy, but you make sure there aren’t open electrical circuits.”

It’s not only individual well-being at stake, either, Barrett said, but the welfare of the entire sport.

“The safety of everybody depends on the safety of everybody,” he said. “Whether its diet questions, substance abuse. We need someone to look after the well-being of the jockey.”

That someone used to be the jockey’s employer. Now jockeys are independent contractors, free to ride for whom they please, but until about 30 years ago, most jockeys broke into the profession when a trainer purchased their contract. The holder of an apprentice rider’s contract filled a different role than an agent and was more likely to keep a young jockey’s behavior in check.

“They watched over you pretty close,” said trainer Dave Kassen, who started as a contract rider in 1959 for Marvin Gaines at Keeneland.

Chris McCarron, whose North American Racing Academy for prospective jockeys teaches a course comparable to those offered in professional sports leagues, said he and his brother Gregg came up under trainer Odie Clelland.

“I think if everyone had someone working with them the way he worked with us, people wouldn’t have the problems they do,” McCarron said.

The contract-riding days also included racing education for riders of the sort rarely seen in North America today. Kassen walked hots when he was a 9-year-old, and before he lost 40 pounds to become a jockey, he’d groomed, galloped, and even served as a jock’s agent.

“No doubt that makes a difference” he said. “You just get a background in the game.”

Richard Migliore, who retired from riding last summer, came up at the end of the contract era. When he started as a jockey in 1980 it was under contract to trainer Steve DiMauro Sr.

“They really prepared you,” Migliore said. “They laid a good foundation, not just to be a jockey, but to be a horseman and to be mature enough to handle what you were going to face going forward. You always had a support system. They would call you in if something wasn’t right. That’s really not the norm anymore. Under contract as a kid you work really hard. You might grouse about that, but looking back on that, it was the best thing that ever could happen to me. I was given a set of tools to handle my whole life with. I was a well-prepared horse person.”

There may have been less substance abuse during the contract-riding era, but there were fewer substances around to abuse, and many older riders believe there is less trouble among jockeys now than in the last decades of the 20th century.

“Today’s society is just much tighter,” said Mark Guidry, a retired rider. “Back in the 70s and 60s, everything kind of went. Now it’s much more monitored.”

“It’s a lot harder to get into trouble because of the drug testing,” Melancon said. “I think that’s a great thing to have.”

Drug testing is the firewall blocking the spread of trouble not just among jockeys but all racetrack personnel. The problem is that testing is conducted so variably from state to state. Some jurisdictions, like Indiana and Kentucky, require daily Breathalyzers from all jockeys. Louisiana has a mandatory random drug-testing policy, something California just instituted in May. But other states, like Illinois, lack funding to support systematic random drug testing. Some places, a jockey will be administered a Breathalyzer only if stewards have reason to believe he or she has been drinking.

There are people around the races who can provide mental and spiritual care and comfort. Racetrack chaplains work at almost every track and often count a counseling component among their responsibilities. Addiction and substance-abuse counselors are out there if a racetracker wants to find one. Melancon, riding at Evangeline Downs this summer, still meets every Friday with two of them, Kenna Latiolais and David Fatherley. Meyocks of the Jockeys’ Guild said a steward at Calder, Dave Hicks, has regular Sunday meetings with apprentice riders and offers tutelage in non-racing matters. Johnston, the Midwest Guild rep, said there have been discussions with the Association of Racing Commissioners International on creating a model rule for jockey eligibility. As with all things ARCI, adoption by states would be strictly voluntary.

In the end, though, a security blanket in the form of a functioning mental health system would only go so far. Michael Baze went to rehab but declined counseling after his first DUI in California. In New York, Migliore tries to shepherd young riders along a proper path but has experienced first-hand the limits of intervention.

“I’ve always tried when I saw a kid heading in the wrong direction to one-on-one try and talk to them,” Migliore said. “Recently, there was one kid I took to my farm. I said, ‘This is mine. I worked hard for this. I didn’t worry about all the accoutrements that can go along with being a successful jockey.’ I said, ‘Look at the wonderful things I have to show for it’. He proceeded to get into serious trouble about a month later. You can only do what you can do.”

Teri Gibson said she doesn’t know how things might have turned out had her son landed in a more supportive, protective environment.

“He needed more than rehab, he needed counseling,” she said. “He’s like me. We always act strong on the outside, but on the inside we have a lot more going on. He was an awesome kid. He was very giving, very caring. He did have issues. I’m not going to lie to people when they ask. I want people to know, a mother of a young jockey, or other young jocks out there, or the older ones who have been doing things for a long time, and thinking, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ Maybe it will be a wake-up call for somebody.”