Updated on 07/08/2013 2:52PM

Pleasanton: Russell Baze gets 12,000th victory

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William G. Vassar
Russell Baze smiles after getting the 12,000th win of his riding career aboard Handful of Pearls in the final race of the Alameda County Fair on Sunday.

PLEASANTON, Calif. – Russell Baze picked up a mount on the favored Handful of Pearls in the final race of the Alameda County Fair meet Sunday and rode the 4-year-old filly to the 12,000th victory of his career, winning a photo over Here It Tiz.

"I'm glad to get it out of the way," said Baze, who needed more than 30 minutes to get back to the jockeys’ room after being mobbed by family, friends, and fans following the milestone victory.

"It was kinda cool to win that way," added Baze, who got the jump on the field and nursed Handful of Pearls to her second career victory. "I knew it was really close. That other filly had the momentum, but my filly was running with her neck stretched out. I would have settled for a dead heat."

The victory was his fourth of the day, including a score in the $59,000 Everett Nevin Stakes on Skydreamin.

He had finished last in the next-to-last race Sunday aboard the favored Crown of Aragorn and seemed set to have his milestone win delayed until the California State Fair in Sacramento, which begins Friday.

But Frank Alvarado took off Gold Boom before the final race, and Dennis Carr took off Handful of Pearls. Baze's agent, Ray Harris, quickly contacted Handful of Pearls's trainer, Andy Mathis, and got the mount for Baze.

It was Baze's second milestone victory aboard a pick-up mount. His 5,000th victory aboard Cyrus Says at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, Calif., came when another rider got sick and took off the mount.

Russell Baze milestones

Sept. 16, 1974: First win
July 29, 1995: 5,000th win
Dec. 3, 1997: 6,000th win
Aug. 9, 1999: Inducted into National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
July 4, 2000: 7,000th win
Oct. 26, 2002: 8,000th win
June 2, 2005: 9,000th win
Dec. 1, 2006: 9,531st win to surpass Laffit Pincay Jr. as North America’s all-time winningest rider
Feb. 1, 2008: 10,000th win
Aug. 14, 2010: 11,000th win
Jan. 25, 2013: 50,000th mount
July 7, 2013: 12,000th win

For Baze, 54, the road to 12,000 has been a long one.

Baze was 0 for 12 to start his career before scoring a victory aboard Oregon Warrior on Sept. 16, 1974, at Yakima Meadows in Washington for his father, Joe. That win was the first of many milestones. Baze joined the elite 5,000-win club in 1995, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, surpassed Laffit Pincay Jr. as the all-time winningest North American-based rider in 2006, and hit win No. 10,000 in 2008.

While he recognizes the importance of such milestones, they are not his focus.

“Sure, it’s nice getting milestones, but they are something I’ll think about after I retire,” he said. “I’ll just come in and get ready to ride the next race. There will be a lot more races after 12,000.”

Baze is the second rider in history to record 12,000 victories. South American rider Jorge Ricardo, 52, reached the 12,000 mark less than two months ago on May 26. The two respect each other and have a friendly rivalry going, Baze said.

“We rode in a jockeys’ competition in England,” Baze said of their lone meeting. “I felt sorry for him because he didn’t draw very good horses.”

Ricardo says his goal is to ride more winners than any other jockey and that he won’t retire until after Baze retires. Knowing that, Baze laughs and says, “I’m going to ride until I’m 72.”

Hidden in that quip is one of the reasons Baze has so many victories. He’s as competitive and hardworking an athlete as basketball’s Michael Jordan and football’s Jerry Rice. After Baze eclipsed his record of 9,530 victories, Pincay Jr. said: “Russell is a great rider, and he works very hard. It takes a lot of ability and dedication to win that many races.”

The competitive fires always have burned brightly for Baze. “I like winning,” he said. “It pays a lot better.”

In his younger days, he frequently would bet a soft drink with his younger brother, Dale, who also was a jockey, when they rode against each other.

Sitting in the Alameda County Fair jockeys’ room recently, he watched a between-race event with kids bouncing along on big rubber balls in a hippity-hop race on the racetrack.

“I remember they did that with fans during Friday night racing at Bay Meadows,” Baze said. “Then they wanted the jockeys to race. Most of those guys were just bouncing up and down, but I was trying to win. And then they had me race the winner from the fans’ contest. I know Bay Meadows wanted me to let him win, but no way was I going to lose.”

Baze is a big fish in the small Northern California pond of horse racing. He rides many favorites but says that’s not the only reason he’s won so many races.

“I get to ride good horses,” he said, “but I win a lot of races on horses I don’t think have much chance.”

Baze has his share of critics, one of whom gave him a backhanded compliment: “He’s the best rider of bad horses I’ve ever seen.”

But he rides fearlessly on runners other jockeys might shun or ride cautiously in defeat.

When Two Step Cat won a $4,000 claimer at a mile for Baze’s 10,000th victory, his trainer, Armando Lage, said, “That’s the one thing about Russell: He’ll ride a $4,000 claimer as good as he rides a stakes horse. That’s one reason he’s won so many races.”

Baze became the first American jockey to ride in 50,000 races earlier this year. He’s won the Isaac Murphy Award as the nation’s leading jockey by winning percentage every year since the award was first given in 1995 except for 2004, when he finished second.

Baze had partnered with Northern California trainer and fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, the third-winningest trainer in history, to produce 2,522 victories through Friday.

“Russell’s a good jockey, and he’s stayed healthy,” Hollendorfer said. “That’s why he’s won a lot of races.”

Of course, “healthy” is a relative thing for a jockey. Baze has broken his neck, back, pelvis, and collar bone and suffered other injuries in spills over the years. He has the normal aches and pains associated with the dangerous business of riding horses but has managed to avoid career-threatening injuries.

“You prepare the best you can,” said Baze, who does a regimen of sit-ups and push-ups when he gets up in the morning. He also does plenty of stretching and stays fit by working horses up to six days a week.

Jockeys are only as good as their horses, and Baze’s ace in the hole is agent, Harris, who convinced him to stay in California in 1980 with the guarantee that Harris would get Baze in the top 10 among riders at their first meet together. The two have been together ever since except for Baze’s three-year Southern California sojourn from 1988-91.

“He’s always been easy to work with,” Baze said.

With each milestone comes more questions about the future and, inevitably, retirement. Just as he doesn’t think of milestones reached, Baze is not spending a lot of time or energy contemplating retirement.

“I still enjoy what I’m doing,” he said. “I have a fantastically exciting job.”