Baze created an Everest of a career
Russell Baze was a little past halfway through his career when his Northern California contemporary, Tom Chapman, retired from riding in 1996. Over the past 20 years, Chapman has nurtured a fine reputation as an artist of sporting scenes, especially horse racing, so he was asked if he’d ever crafted a portrait of the man who has ridden more than 12,000 winners.
“No, but I know I could paint his backside from memory,” Chapman replied. “I spent enough time looking at it.”
The announcement by Baze this week that he has called it quits at age 57 after a career of 42 years, 53,578 mounts, and 12,842 wins came as a surprise to racing fans who had come to think of him as a natural resource, something that helped power the game without risk of depletion.
“I had to think that one over, when I heard the news,” said Greg Gilchrist, who trained champion Lost in the Fog, the best horse Baze ever rode. “I don’t think people even begin to realize what it takes to ride all those years, and to do it at the level he did.”
Baze retires with a well-earned plaque in the racing Hall of Fame and a Special Eclipse Award, presented in 1995 upon the occasion of his fourth consecutive season with 400 wins or more. As it turned out, the award was premature. Before he was through he did it nine more times, most recently in 2009, at the age of 51.
The Baze total is from many angles incomprehensible, and therefore dismissed in some quarters as merely a function of the region in which he rode. Either he was riding against one-legged vacuum salesmen, or they gave him a head start.
This is missing several points, beginning with the sheer longevity of a 42-year career.
“No matter where you compete, the more horses you ride the more chance you’ve got to get hurt,” Gilchrist said. “It becomes not a matter of if, but only when. For him to withstand all of that and still be as competitive as he has at his age – that’s quite a testament.”
Then there is the nature of the job itself. Trainers can run up their totals with multiple entries, drops in class, and cherry-picking condition books for soft spots to run. There is no physical component to their challenge beyond twisting an ankle on the way to the winner’s circle. In evaluating their place in the hierarchy of the game, it matters where trainers win their races.
Jockeys, on the other hand, face the same challenges and the same dangers no matter where they compete. The 6,720 races won by Mario Pino in the Mid-Atlantic or the 6,349 won by Carl Gambardella in New England are every bit as impressive and presented the same degree of difficulty – if not media attention – as the 6,795 won by Hall of Famer Jorge Velasquez or the 6,899 and counting won by Hall of Famer Edgar Prado.
Anyway, to denigrate the Northen California jockey colony that Baze mastered over the past decades is an empty endeavor. Joel Rosario and Martin Garcia cut their teeth there. In addition to Chapman, there was Ron Hansen, Ronnie Warren, Roberto Gonzalez, and Tony Diaz, all respected wherever they rode, while the likes of Tim Doocy, Ken Tohill, and Gary Boulanger escaped the shadow of Baze to be leading riders elsewhere.
“I thought he’d go at least until he hit 13,000,” said Chapman, who won a very respectable 2,584 races during his 20 years in the saddle. “I thought my career was pretty good, but Russell won 10,000 more races that I did. It’s disgusting.”
Chapman laughed at this, knowing full well the toll it took.
“He was what you would call a blue-collar jockey,” Chapman said. “He got up every day, worked at the job, and went home that night to his wife and kids. He was just such a great role model.
“A couple of years ago, Russell told me the Tapeta surface at Golden Gate really extended his career,” Chapman said. “I know there have been mixed opinions about the stuff, but his opinion was there weren’t as many catastrophic breakdowns as you might find on a dirt track, which meant there were fewer chances a rider could fall and really get hurt.”
Still, Baze got hurt, just like riders half his age, including a fractured clavicle in April of this year. It also was a cracked collarbone that kept Baze from riding Lost in the Fog in the 2005 Riva Ridge Stakes at Belmont Park, the only mount he missed aboard the Eclipse Award sprint champion in 14 lifetime starts.
“I want you to work him so that you’ll know if you want to spend any time with him when he comes back,” Gilchrist said before he gave Lost in the Fog a break as a 2-year-old. “After he worked him he said, ‘I don’t care if you call me the night before he runs. I don’t care. Just reserve this one for me.’ And when he got hurt, and Edgar rode him in New York that one time, Russell was the first one to call me after the race with congratulations. That’s the kind of guy he is.
“He could win a $250,000, Grade 2 race for you and an hour later ride your $10,000 claimer, and he’d come out with the same enthusiasm,” Gilchrist added. “He rode every one to the fullest extent. I can’t believe there’ll ever be another one like him.”
In January of 2004, Baze had just returned from his first broken collarbone in nearly 30 years of riding. He was 45, and he insisted that retirement was the last thing on his mind.
“It's a ton of fun,” Baze said of his job. “Exhilarating. Compared to what we do, everything else is just kind of boring. I'm sure I could find something else if I had to, but right now, this is what interests me, and it's what I enjoy doing.”
And we enjoyed being along for the ride.