12/01/2006 1:00AM

Not being there? Not an option


SAN MATEO, Calif. - It was a simple question, and Gary Stevens figured to have the answer. After all, he was once married to a member of the Baze clan, now arrayed before him among the more than 50 people filling in the Bay Meadows winner's circle to celebrate the proudest moment in family history.

"How many of those folks are actually Bazes?" Stevens was asked.

Stevens flashed his baby blues, suppressed a playful grin and, with perfect TV timing, replied, "It'd be easier to tell you how many aren't."

It was a real Baze-fest Thursday at Bay Meadows, where the most amazing Baze of them all attained heights only one other athlete could claim. As Russell Baze brought the 3-year-old filly Christie's Fame home first in the day's sixth race, the sign hanging from the infield tote board said it all:

Laffit Pincay 9,530

Russell Baze 9,530

Pincay was there - he had been since the previous weekend - welcoming Baze to the top of the mountain, all the while shivering in the chilly autumn shade. Pincay hates to be cold almost as much as he hated to lose. But this was a special moment he was not about to miss, and besides, the last guy in his position didn't hesitate when Laffit played the Baze part in the drama.

"I remember making Shoe come out day after day before I broke his record," Pincay said, referring to his friend, Bill Shoemaker, and the events of early December of 1999. "He gave me a hard time about it, but he didn't hesitate to come out. And for him, it wasn't easy."

At the time, Shoemaker was wheelchair bound as a quadriplegic, and the simple act of a cross-town commute involved elaborate preparation and procedures that were never any fun. But just as Pincay decamped from his cozy Southern California life to lead the Baze Watch, it never occurred to Shoemaker to be anywhere else when the record was reached.

On this Thursday afternoon, with Baze needing one win to tie Pincay and two to make the mark his own, Russell was riding hard but his mounts were slow to sense the urgency of the moment.

"I wish my horse was half as tired as I am," a sand-splattered Baze puffed after dismounting from third-place Stealth Attack in the one-mile fifth.

Up in the Director's Room, where special friends and the immediate Baze family had gathered for what was beginning to feel like an endless buffet, patriarch Joe Baze threw caution to the wind and switched from the soft stuff to CC and water, thank you very much.

"I had to do something," he said. "I'd just been drinking tea, and that wasn't getting it done."

It worked, and thanks also to whatever was ailing Ricky Frazier, who begged off sick and left Christie's Fame open for Baze to win number 9,530. Suspicious minds had a field day, but clerk of the scales Paul Nicolo put them to rest.

"Ricky was feeling terrible all day," said Nicolo, a former rider himself. "But he had to be bad for him to take off. That doesn't happen much with him."

The same can be said of the leading man, and the guy he has been chasing. Side by side, the figure was staggering - more than 19,000 winners between just the two of them, Pincay and Baze, from more than 90,000 rides. Best of all, there is no secret.

"He's just a real competitor," said former rider Tom Chapman, who went heel to heel against Baze for 15 years. "You might think you've got him beat, but you'd better ride all the way to the wire, because if you don't, he'll come back and nose you."

Chapman, now an accomplished equine and wildlife artist, was on the scene to capture just the right image of Baze and his record run. The perfect picture, according to Chapman, might be Russell in a drive, giving the horse his last ounce of energy.

"He can ride one hard a good three-eighths of a mile, and that cuts a lot of riders out of the picture," Chapman said. "For him, it's always the winning. I don't even think he cares about the money."

On Friday, after winning aboard Butterfly Belle in the fourth race, Baze would be alone at the top, with plenty of opportunities to go beyond 9,531. But for now, late Thursday afternoon, there was only the waiting.

On a monitor at his table in a nearly deserted Turf Club on Thursday, Pincay watched two younger Baze jockeys - Tyler and Michael - being interviewed from Hollywood Park, followed by a TVG replay of Pincay's record-setting race aboard Irish Nip. Pincay leaned in and smiled at the sight of his son, Jean-Laffitte, seven years younger, enjoying the postrace celebration in the Hollywood Park winner's circle.

"Now that was a very good day," Pincay said.

Then it was time for the last race, in which the fate of Pincay's record rested with a horse named Jans Coach that was owned - no kidding - by Earl T. Baze II, brother of Tyler, grandson of Carl, and second cousin of Russell. Jans Coach showed a little speed down the backstretch then faded away, leaving Baze and Pincay together at the top for at least another day.

Pincay, killing time until history was made, looked down at what was becoming a dwindling wardrobe for the occasion.

"Boy, am I glad I brought another sweater," he said, and then made plans for tomorrow.