07/14/2006 12:00AM

Phenom striving to be comeback kid

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - At the ripe old age of 23, jockey Tyler Baze already has seven years of experience in racing. He would be the first to admit that he has done about seven years of growing up in the last year.

After a second half of 2005 plagued by personal problems, Baze is getting his career back on course and greatly looking forward to the start of the 43-day Del Mar meeting Wednesday.

It was at this time last year that Baze's problems escalated. He was mourning the death of a grandmother and fighting a battle with anorexia. Those problems affected his riding. He went through a 62-race losing streak at Del Mar. During the fall, Baze was suspended for seven days for failing a breathalyzer test at Hoosier Park, where he had gone for a stakes ride.

Baze said he has not forgotten those incidents.

"I've had some good learning experiences in the last year," he said recently.

Baze, who won the riding title at the 2004 Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, has spent the first half of this year regaining business lost last summer and fall. His agent, Ivan Puhich, advised him sternly last fall that he had to get his act together to have any chance of regaining his status as a leading rider.

"I'm 80, and I told him if you want to be 80, you have to take care of yourself," said Puhich. "He responded very strongly to everything I told him. He had so much success when he was 16 years old. He took everything for granted."

Since Baze began riding in 1999, Puhich has been his agent and a father figure of sorts. Together, they have shared highlights such as Baze winning the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding apprentice jockey of 2000, Baze's first Grade 1 win aboard Avanzado in the 2003 Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap, and the riding title at Hollywood Park.

There have been no riding titles lately. Last fall at Hollywood Park, Baze won 16 races, finishing fifth in the standings. At the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting earlier this year, he had 39 winners, ranking seventh. Through Thursday, he was fifth in the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting that ends on Sunday.

Baze said he believes he is making progress.

"Everything's been going pretty good," he said. "I've been winning two or three or four races a week. I sure can't complain."

Baze says he continues to see a nutritionist, Dr. Philip Goglia of Santa Monica. Last summer, Baze's weight dropped to an unhealthy 98 pounds, Puhich said.

"He was riding good horses and placing them properly, but he wasn't strong enough to make them finish," Puhich said.

Baze said his condition has rebounded. Standing 5-4, he is riding at 113 pounds.

"I'm strong and working out a couple of days a week," he said. "I've been swimming every day in my pool."

Puhich said he thinks that Baze will eventually regain a spot among Southern California's top riders.

"Our business is coming back slow," Puhich said. "It's not cheap business. It's good business. He will be the leading rider in Southern California again."

Despite his young age, Baze has mentored the apprentice riders on this circuit, notably Juan Ochoa, who is in the top 10 in the Hollywood rider standings.

Having a successful meeting at Del Mar would be a major boost to Baze's self-esteem. Last September, he was so excited to win the Del Mar Handicap on Leprechaun Kid that he had tears in his eyes in the winner's circle.

On Wednesday's opening day, he is expected to ride Blazing Sunset in the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf. Trained by Doug O'Neill, Blazing Sunset won the Alydar Stakes on dirt at Hollywood Park in May and was second in the Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows earlier this month.

O'Neill said owners have shown more interest in employing Baze in recent months.

"It's easier to ride him now because owners want him," O'Neill said. "He's a good all-around rider, and he's tough on the lead."

Baze has been looking toward Del Mar by spending many mornings in the stables, working horses that will run at the meeting. He said he is looking forward to riding Mea Domina for Ron McAnally in turf stakes and the 3-year-old filly Silly Little Mama for Dan McFarlane in the $100,000 Fleet Treat Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on July 23.

"I've got a lot of good horses coming up that I've been riding," Baze said. "Hopefully, I can win a few stakes. I'd love to win a riding title. Hopefully, I'll have a few of those at Del Mar in my career."