08/07/2005 11:00PM

When safety trumps victory

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Standing side by side at the rail near the winner's circle, Victor Espinoza and Tyler Baze watched the drama at the top of the stretch of last Sunday's Clement L. Hirsch Handicap unfold over and over on the big video board in the Del Mar infield.

As reruns go, it wasn't exactly vintage "Baywatch."

There was Baze on Muir Beach, tangled behind the swerving Tucked Away, struggling to keep her feet and staying afloat only through the grace of Espinoza, who eased Hollywood Story just wide enough to allow Muir Beach a slim route of escape. Stop-frame slow motion gave the crowd a blow-by-blow feel for the moment, while Baze could only wonder why he was still standing and breathing.

"Oooeeeeejeeeez!" Baze groaned. "Don't go down, mama, don't go down!"

Beside him, Espinoza shook his head.

"I should have kept riding my horse," he said. "But I didn't want Tyler to get trapped."

A grateful Baze was ready to give Espinoza the race.

"He only got beat a nose," Baze said. "He should be moved up."

In the end, the Del Mar stewards decided that the incident was actually triggered by Star Parade, under Garrett Gomez, who veered out only slightly, but enough to cause Tucked Away to shift significantly and threaten Muir Beach.

The fact that Tucked Away went on to narrowly beat the onrushing Hollywood Story added urgency to the intrigue. From all available angles, the stewards made the right call, even though it appeared at first that Tucked Away was the initial offender. She wasn't.

She was, however, very lucky to win on several counts. Valentine Dancer did not necessarily have to press the classy Alphabet Kisses through early fractions of 22.87 and 45.95 seconds. But she did. Alex Solis could have been stopped at any time as he knifed his way along the rail, then split horses to commence his final attack. They never broke stride.

Most significantly of all, Espinoza could have kept his head down and his line tight into the final straight, ignoring the plight of Baze and Muir Beach and dealing with the consequences later. To his everlasting credit, he did not.

"It cost me the race," Espinoza said later in his corner of the jocks' room. "But you know, sometimes I don't mind losing a race when the choice is putting someone in a dangerous situation."

The concept is relative. As seen from the ground, jockeys put each other in dangerous situations all the time. They ride close, invite mistakes, and guard their ground like pit bulls when the money is on the line. The best of them, however, abide by a visceral version of the Golden Rule, doing unto others as they would hope gets done for them.

"It's automatic," Espinoza insisted. "You just have to react. You see a guy clipping heels like that, and you know he's going down. In that spot, I was the only one who could have given him a break, because I was on the outside. At a time like that, you forget about trying to win a race. You're trying to save a guy's life. So I grabbed my horse, swung to the outside, and stopped riding for maybe five yards. I looked back, and he was still on the horse. It just happened that this time I got beat by a nose, so it made a difference. But I don't want to feel guilty. I want to sleep at night."

Solis, the beneficiary, saw no reason to assign blame.

"It happened right at that little elbow on the turn," Solis said. "It always tries to throw horses out a little bit. I don't know why. It was nobody's fault. Garrett's horse went out just that little bit and brushed us, but when you are turning like that it can be a lot worse. Thank God nobody went down. Thank God Victor gave him a break."

Praise noted, but wouldn't any other rider have done the same?

"It would be nice to think so," Solis replied. "It would be better to give somebody a chance and see them back in the room, than not giving them a chance and go visit them in the hospital. Because I know how that feels."

It was at the same point on the track a year ago that Solis went down under similar circumstances. A horse to the inside veered just enough to push another horse in front of Solis and his mount. When the dust cleared, Solis had suffered a severely fractured vertebra and missed the next six months.

History will record the 2005 version of the Clement L. Hirsch in a cold 1-2-3. But for purposes of prudent karma, let's call it a draw.

Tucked Away, a scrappy California-bred daughter of Unusual Heat, was winning her first graded stakes in 27 starts since she was claimed as a maiden for $40,000 by owner Nico Nierenberg and trainer Paddy Gallagher.

As for Hollywood Story, the elegant daughter of Wild Rush need never prove her bravery again. Last May at Hollywood Park, she was knocked to her nose on the first turn and still won the Hawthorne Handicap. She saved Espinoza's bacon that day, and last Sunday, with Espinoza's help, she did the same for Baze.