01/24/2005 12:00AM

Not one drop of brag in Baze


ARCADIA, Calif. - Numbers tend to render judgment senseless. The bigger the number, the dumber the conclusions. A building isn't the best because it's the tallest. "Titanic," with its $1.8 billion in ticket sales, is hardly the greatest movie of all time. And the United States is far from the biggest deadbeat on earth, just because the size of its national debt is a staggering $7.6 trillion (although it does look pretty bad when all the zeroes are used).

Now we are celebrating the movement of one grand number past another, as Russell Baze has pushed his win total ahead of the one established by Bill Shoemaker. In January 1990, Shoemaker retired with 8,833 victories at the age of 58. Baze, who turned 46 last August, won four races Saturday and two races Sunday to wake up Monday morning with 8,836.

As everyone should know, this is not the record. Laffit Pincay holds the title, with 9,530, and he still would be going strong if his horse hadn't clipped heels in a race at Santa Anita on March 1, 2003. Pincay, who continues to recover from the effects of fractured and compressed vertebrae, was forced to retire.

The target now fixed, Baze has been marching toward the all-time record with an inevitability that makes even Pincay shrug, "He'll break it, no doubt." Mathematical projections have Baze hitting the top in late 2006.

To his credit, Baze is reluctant to anticipate the day, taking to heart the wry proverb, "Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans." Too many things can happen to a jockey, and most of them are bad. Pincay himself was determined to ride until he had won 10,000 races. Oops.

Association with the name Shoemaker, though, is magical. Brush up against it and good things rub off. Baze is delighted even to be sharing a paragraph with his childhood idol. But, he pleads, do not confuse the numbers with the men attached.

"I'm proud of what I've done, but there's only one Bill Shoemaker," Baze insisted.

The Baze domination of the northern California circuit is truly without precedent. As pointed out by colleague Chuck Dybdal over the weekend, Baze won every major Bay Area riding title between 1981 and early 2004, when a broken clavicle ended the streak. That is 23 solid years of Baze first, the rest nowhere.

Nothing Baze has done, however, can compare to Shoemaker's record in the best races offered over the past half-century. Among those 8,833 winners were 11 Triple Crown events, 11 Santa Anita Handicaps, four Jockey Club Gold Cups, and a Breeders' Cup Classic - at age 56. Baze has ridden in one Derby and two Breeders' Cup events.

Even in terms of style, Baze and Shoemaker represent wildly differing extremes.

Shoemaker was the consummate cool dude, soft on the mouth and perched like a butterfly, asking but never insisting. Horses would chuckle whenever Shoe slapped them right-handed, employing the same deft stroke he had used for one of his deadly drop shots at the net. But when he switched to the left, alarm bells rang. The horse knew something was up.

Baze is taller and stronger, with long, swimmer's arms and workingman's hands. His nearly constant supply of live mounts through the decades has allowed him to be the aggressor, shaping the race to his advantage and winning as he pleased. Still, the younger version of Baze was known as a swashbuckler with the whip, generously applying when he felt it was needed.

Stewards did not always agree. According to records maintained by the Association of Racing Stewards, in an 11-season span from 1985 through the end of 1995 Baze received no fewer than 200 fines for some type of whip violation, under rules that could include excessive use or hitting a horse anywhere other than the shoulder or the hindquarters.

"Compared to when I was younger, I think I'm being a little more judicious in the use of the whip," Baze said this week. The record bears him out. "I think I'm being a little calmer-headed during a race - rather than making moves on emotion. I think I've just become a little more cerebral about it.

"For some reason I would occasionally alter the arc of my swing and hit horses in the flank," Baze noted. "I've gone through that phase a couple of times. I don't know why it happens, but I do have to pay attention to it when it does. In fact, it happened to me about a month ago. As soon as it's brought to my attention, I try to make sure it doesn't happen again. Those animals put up with enough without some goofy yahoo actually trying to hit them in the wrong place."

If nothing else, Baze emulates Shoemaker's blue-collar dedication and honest humility. At the 1996 Eclipse Awards ceremony in San Diego, Baze was saluted with a special award for recording his fourth consecutive North American riding title with more than 400 winners. His remarks were grateful and well prepared, but the most heartfelt moment came when he went off-script to admit, "I really don't know why I'm getting this."

As far as Russell Baze was concerned, he was only doing his job.