07/19/2004 12:00AM

Riding up to his name


DEL MAR, Calif. - A large, black cowboy hat entered the room, closely followed by a belt buckle the size of home plate and a set of braces framed by a goofy "Who, me?" grin.

Ladies and gents, meet the new boss.

In winning the jockey title at the 65-day Hollywood Park meet that concluded on Sunday, 21-year-old Tyler Baze stepped confidently into the rarified air occupied only by the very best journeymen riders of the West. It's a short list, and there are no flukes, no one-shot deals or overnight sensations. To lead the winter-spring session at Santa Anita, the spring-summer stand at Hollywood, or the 43-day grind at Del Mar requires a dedicated pro possessed of good health, sharp focus, and the ability to make the most of every opportunity.

Since Baze was born, in 1982, the Hollywood spring-summer title has been won by either Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr., Gary Stevens, Pat Valenzuela, Kent Desormeaux, Alex Solis, Corey Nakatani, or Victor Espinoza. Talk about a tough room.

Don't be too impressed with Baze's youth, however. There have been younger Hollywood champs, although not since 1968, when Laffit Pincay won his first California title at 21 years, seven months. Baze turns 22 in October.

As far as Santa Anita goes, no one as young as Baze has topped the standings since 1952, when Bill Shoemaker was five months shy of his 21st birthday. At Del Mar, the youth standard was set in 1973 by Steve Valdez, who led the meet as a 17-year-old apprentice. Valdez went on to win the Eclipse Award for apprentice riders that season.

Baze won the same award for the year 2000, when he shuttled back and forth between Southern California and Phoenix, riding seven days a week while hard-wiring a strong work ethic. Top California apprentices, however, rarely go on to lead major meets as full-fledged journeymen - Nakatani, Valenzuela, and Aaron Gryder have been glaring exceptions to the rule - which makes Tyler's Hollywood title that much more significant.

Baze is no accident, either, no mysterious young star fallen from the Northwestern sky. The connective tissue that led him to the top of the standings began with Mike Puhich, who was training in Seattle when word got around that the latest pup from the same gene pool that produced Joe, Russell, and Gary Baze might have the makings of a real jockey.

"He was a 15-year-old kid, and all cowboy," Puhich recalled. "I had him walking hots and mucking stalls, then sent him to a farm where he started galloping. He was showing talent, but he wasn't ready to ride. What he needed was Uncle Ivan."

Enter Ivan Puhich, hard-nosed Marine, ex-boxer, and jock's agent with more than half a century of service to a number of riders. Mike talked Ivan into taking Tyler under his wing - "He needed the Marine treatment," Mike said - and Ivan rose to the challenge. With a key boost from trainer John Sadler, the youngest Baze was on his way.

"Going on five years now," Ivan Puhich said as he accepted handshakes for the Hollywood title. "He's a good kid, he works hard. And as long as he keeps looking to guys like Gary and Laffit as role models, he'll be all right."

Gary, in this case, is Uncle Gary Stevens, related to Tyler through Stevens' first marriage. That was a long time ago - before Tyler Baze was even born, in fact - and a world away from the setting on Sunday night aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where Stevens and Angie Athayde celebrated their wedding.

Baze missed the ceremony (he was busy winning the Sunset Handicap aboard Star Over the Bay on Hollywood's closing day), but he made his entrance at the reception and soon got a bear hug from Stevens along with praise for winning the title.

"It won't be his last," Stevens vowed.

Baze will get a chance to prove it beginning Wednesday, when Del Mar begins its 65th season by the sea. The competition is typically tough, with past Del Mar champs Espinoza, Solis, Desormeaux, Nakatani, and David Flores all on the scene, as well as defending titlist Pat Valenzuela waiting in the wings, ready to ride if his latest appeal of suspension goes his way.

Baze hopes to get off to a sharp start opening day, while stirring in a dose of grateful payback in the process. In the second division of the traditional Oceanside Stakes, he will be aboard the French colt Fairly Run, a half-brother to the 2003 Oceanside division winner, Fairly Ransom, who will be making his first start in this country for Mike Puhich. Fairly Run, a son of Cherokee Run, was ridden most recently in France by Stevens, and it was Stevens who recommended that Puhich purchase him on behalf of Chicago businessman John Gorman.

"Gary is pretty nervous about how this colt runs, since it's his first time out as a bloodstock agent," Puhich cracked. "He even offered to interrupt his honeymoon if I needed him to ride, since he knows him well.

"As it turned out, I don't need him. I've got my old hotwalker riding instead."