07/23/2004 12:00AM

For Puhich, the rocking chair can wait

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Ivan Puhich was not looking to go back to work five years ago. He had been on the racetrack since 1944, with time out for a stint in the Marine Corps at the tail end of World War II, and was content to enjoy a semi-retirement, gabbing at Santa Anita's Clocker's Corner in the morning, hanging out at the track in the afternoon. All the fun of the races, with absolutely none of the pressure.

His nephew, the trainer Mike Puhich, convinced Uncle Ivan that it was worth his while to head back to Washington state and meet a 16-year-old kid named Tyler Baze, who was working as a groom but was looking to begin as an apprentice rider. Puhich was in the position to set things on his terms. He told Tyler what he expected, and told Tyler's parents that if their son came to live with him in Southern California, "You have absolutely no say about his life."

Since then, Baze and Puhich have made the most unlikely, yet successful, of odd couples. Under Puhich's steady guidance, Baze won the Eclipse Award as champion apprentice of 2000. And last Sunday, Baze clinched his first riding title in Southern California, at Hollywood Park.

"He's never disappointed me, and I'm pretty tough," Puhich said while relaxing on a bench outside Del Mar's backside racing office. "He weighed 120 pounds. I had to teach him how to train his body - to run, to eat properly. If you live with me, you have to make your bed, do the dishes, learn how to cook, and learn how to garden. I'd hate to live with me."

Yet Puhich, 78, and Baze, now 21, bonded. "I do love him like he was my own son," said Puhich.

"That makes it harder, sometimes, to hustle book for him, because I worry about the horses I put him on."

Puhich has a 43-year-old son, Steve, a former trainer who now works at Emerald Downs.

More often than not, Puhich has made the right calls. The appreciation for what Puhich has done for Baze, both on and off the track, was never more evident than at the Eclipse Awards ceremonies in New Orleans in January 2001. When Baze was announced as the winner, he was genuinely startled. He buried his head in the arms of Puhich and sobbed.

"I don't know what to say," a red-eyed Baze said when he got to the podium. "I want to thank Ivan Puhich, the best guy around, and my best friend."

Puhich was born in St. Helena, Calif., in the heart of California's wine country, but his family moved to Renton, Wash., when he was a toddler. The family's farm, which had racehorses, was just 1 1/2 miles from Longacres Race Course.

"People would drop horses off, not pay their bills, and we'd own the horses," Puhich said.

One of Puhich's earliest racetrack memories is of selling newspapers to trainers Charlie Whittingham and Willard Proctor at Longacres in 1937. An older brother - Nick, Mike's father - worked as a jockey agent. In 1944, at 18, Puhich followed suit.

Puhich later joined the Marines, and was part of the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945. After that, he fought in China. After returning to the United States, Puhich was stationed in San Diego. Del Mar beckoned.

"There was this gambler I knew, Red Rydell," Puhich said. "Red Rydell from New Rochelle they called him. One day at the track, Bing Crosby came by. Red asked him to sing a song. Bing said, 'I will, if you give me that $500 you owe me.' So Red paid him the $500, Bing sang, and everybody was happy. Those were fun days at Del Mar."

Puhich attended Gonzaga University, where he took pre-law courses, but found himself spending more time at Playfair Race Course.

For nearly 50 years, Puhich worked as an agent. He was based in Washington state and then primarily in northern California, where he worked for, among others, Marco Castaneda, Bill Mahorney, and Rafael Meza. He also developed a passion for the San Francisco 49ers football team, and often wears a jacket with the team's logo.

"I'd cook chateaubriand and feed 25 or 30 people tailgating at the games," Puhich said. "They won five Super Bowls. Those were the best 10 or 12 years of my life."

Puhich's tastes are refined. He is extremely well read, enjoys opera, and loves wine. He's in bed by 9 every night, and arises at 3 for a pre-work regimen of sit-ups and weight lifting. His fitness is one reason a man of his age can still move with regal bearing and compete with agents who are young enough to be his grandkids.

"I had kind of retired," Puhich said. "I came down to Southern California because the weather is too cold up north, and the 49ers had already won five Super Bowls. Mike talked me into going back to see Tyler. I didn't want to go back to work. But if I wasn't working, I'd still be out at Clocker's Corner every morning, so I'm probably better off working.

"Tyler has always wanted to work," he said. "Before he rode in any races, he would be the first one at Santa Anita every morning, and would work eight to 10 horses a morning. He's a quick learner. He never makes the same mistake twice.

"Jockeys usually get good between their fifth and 10th years. This is his fifth year. Right now, we're a couple of years in front of expectations."