11/23/2006 1:00AM

A win is a win - all 9,531 of 'em


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The question lingers, like a nagging cough or an unwelcomed guest. Russell Baze is about to erase Laffit Pincay's name from the record books. What sacrilege. What gall. How dare he?

Clearly, goes the line of thought, Baze and his record should not be held in the same regard as Pincay's remarkable achievement. At the moment it happens, and Baze stands alone at the top, there should be a public address announcement to that effect. Excessive displays of respect and affection should be toned down. And if he wouldn't mind, Baze should apologize.

What hogwash.

The record for most wins is nothing less than an iron-man mark, no matter where those wins occurred. Besides, there are at least 201 reasons to extol the fact that Russell Baze will be holding one of racing's most respected records, at least for the foreseeable future. Of that figure, 143 have been jockeys killed in action since 1941, while the other 58 represent the number of riders currently designated as permanently disabled by racing accidents.

Baze has not escaped injuries. His crash list is considerable, although he does not dwell upon the carnage. If asked, he will reel off a perverse inventory that includes a broken hand and wrist, cracked ribs and clavicles, fractured pelvis, multiple concussions, and an assortment of damaged vertebrae, from his neck to his tailbone.

In his words, however, "There's been nothing real serious," which baffles those of use whose tolerance for pain is tested by a bunion, or a hangnail. In the case of a dedicated professional like Baze, this apparently translates to the fact that he is still breathing and walking, and can use a stick with either hand.

Jockeys play a blood sport in which every single stride literally could be the last, for both horse and rider. And since the dangers are the same, whether the horses leave the gate at Santa Anita or Golden Gate Fields, the credit for accomplishment should be spread in equal proportions.

In criticizing the fact that Baze has accumulated his totals on the northern California circuit, there also is a not-so-subtle denigration of the riders Baze has competed against, as if he has been winning all his races against a bunch of hobos and farm boys.

Try telling that to the NoCal fans who have dared to bet against Baze and cashed tickets through the years courtesy of Tom Chapman, Ron Warren, Chad Schvaneveldt, Bobby Gonzalez, Vann Belvoir, Ken Tohill, Martin Garcia, and Ron Hansen.

In truth, American racing fans have taken this particular record seriously for only the last 50 years, during which time it has been held only by John Longden, Bill Shoemaker, and Pincay.

Prior to 1956, there was very little discussion about the identity of the all-time leader in wins. This is probably because the leader was not an American. He was, instead, an Englishman named Gordon Richards, the son of a Shropshire coal miner, who retired from the saddle in 1954 at the age of 50.

Attached to the stables of Fred Darling, and then Noel Murless, Richards seemed to win every race run in England for three solid decades. At one point, in August of 1933, Richards rode 12 straight winners. In 34 years of riding, he was champion 28 times, with his win total at the end standing at 4,870. The closest English rider was more than 2,000 winners back.

Impressive, but it was not until Longden drew close to the Richards mark that the racing public in the U.S. bothered to notice.

The American Racing Manual included the all-time winners list for the 1952 season (North American riders only) when Longden became the first American jockey to reach 4,000. Arcaro was second, more than 1,000 winners behind Longden.

At that point, Longden was better known for his 1943 Triple Crown sweep aboard Count Fleet than his prodigious win total. Eventually, Longden passed the retired Richards on Sept. 3, 1956, by winning the Del Mar Handicap aboard Arrogate. He was 49 years old, and rode for 10 more years, posting 6,032 wins for the next guy to beat.

Of course, everyone knew who it would be. When Longden retired in 1966, Bill Shoemaker was right on his heels, barely 600 wins behind. Still, it took Shoemaker four years to pass Longden, and win No. 6,033 (also at Del Mar, on Labor Day of 1970), mostly because Shoemaker missed nearly two years of riding during that period with the two most serious injuries of his career.

Shoemaker rode until January of 1990 and retired with 8,833 wins. At that point Pincay was close - about 1,500 back - but for Laffit the record was no sure thing. He was going through hard times getting prime mounts. Business was slow, and his battle with weight was wearing him down. It took him nine years to catch Shoemaker - on Dec. 10, 1999, at Hollywood Park. And when it happened, he insisted he was riding better than ever.

Just as Richards had to retire after fracturing his pelvis in 1954, Pincay's neck and back injuries in a March 2003 accident brought unwanted finality to his career, freezing his win total at 9,530. He vows he would have made 10,000, and no one in their right mind would disagree.

In the end, the record is not simply an indication of how long these riders hung around. It represents how they spent their time, in ceaseless dedication, winning beyond all reasonable limitations of age and the accrued effects of injuries. Baze, a class act with a body as durable as his personality, fits well in the lineage.

Gordon Richards died in 1988. Both Longden and Shoemaker passed in 2003. Pincay, alive and well, will be there to greet Baze when he dismounts from winner No. 9,531, and just like that, the torch will be passed. May it burn brightly in Russell's good hands.