Given the suspension of athletics in the county, the Daily Journal decided to dive into our 20-year archives to bring readers some of our favorite stories over the years.
MAY 20, 2006 — Just like millions of sports fans around the world, Russell Baze will try to tune in to Saturday's Preakness Stakes, the second-leg of horse racing's Triple Crown.
If he can't watch it, however, it's because he has to work. Baze, 47, is the second all-time winningest jockey and is closing in on Lafit Pincay, Jr.'s record of 9,530.
"[Tracks] usually give us time to watch the Triple Crown races," Baze said, adding that few times a race was scheduled at the same time, "You get a lot of disgruntled jockeys."
Baze has ridden in the Kentucky Derby twice -- including two weeks ago aboard Cause to Believe -- but has never been lucky to secure a ride for the Preakness or the Belmont stakes.
Don't feel bad for him. Baze crafted quite a career at Northern California race tracks. He has won 35 riding titles at Bay Meadows and 28 at Golden Gate Fields. He won 400 or more races in a season an unprecedented 11 times -- and is the only jockey to do it four years in a row. No other jockey has accomplished the feat more than three times. He has led the nation in wins eight times. He was named to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1999. He was also the jockey aboard Lost in the Fog's run to the Eclipse Sprinter of the Year award last year. In 1995, the Isaac Murphy Award was created for the jockey with best winning percentage. From 1995 to 2004, there was only one name on the award -- Baze's.
How's that for domination?
Not that any of this came easy for Baze.
"You have to be able to put big numbers up," Baze said. "You have to come out (and work) every day."
Not only does Baze have to work hard to stay in shape, he has to work the horses as well as the owners and trainers. It's the politicking behind the scenes that results in rides. If a jockey can make a good impression on trainers and owners, mounts come your way. Winning only solidifies your standing among those looking for riders.
"You have to be able to win on horses that don't look like they can win. You have to prove you can win," Baze said. "You have to prove yourself. You have to show you're eager. There is a little bit of politics going on. I know a lot of riders ... that didn't want to put out the effort. The trainers like to see hungry riders. That's part of the reason to go out (and work out horses) in the morning. You can build a little rapport (with the horse and handler)."
Baze's work ethic is in his genes. His father, Joe, won riding championships at Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields and the since-closed Longacres in the Seattle, Wash. area. A number of other family members are involved in the sport as well. Heck, even his grandmother, Joe's mother, was a jockey.
"There's definitely a genetic makeup in me to ride horses," Baze said, adding that he has ridden horses all his life.
There might have been some raised eyebrows in the family, however, when it took him a while to get his first win. His first race came a day shy of his 16th birthday, a third-place finish in Walla Walla, Wash. He didn't come up with his first victory until Oct. 28, 1974 on Oregon Warrior, trained by Baze's father.
"Most of the guys in my family won their first or second race," Baze said. "It took me 13 or 14 races."
He came to Northern California in 1978, and after finishing fourth in the rider standings at Golden Gate Fields, moved to the Bay Area full time in 1981. After dominating Northern California, he decided to take on the Southern California tracks, from 1989 to 1991. It's perceived by many that his time riding in Southern California was a major bust, but he finished in the top 10 in the rider's standings all three years and notched his 3,000th victory.
"It was a good experience. I made a lot of contacts," Baze said of his SoCal years. "I think I became a little better rider down there.
"I didn't have the kind of success that I wanted. The main reason to go down there was to ride the better horses in the larger stakes races. It didn't come to fruition."
He returned to Northern California for the 1992 season and again, dominated. On April 16, he set a NorCal record by winning seven of nine races at Golden Gate Fields. It also marked the first time he eclipsed the 400-win mark for the season.
Don't think for a minute, however, that he didn't have the skill to compete at the highest levels.
"When those guys come up here, I'm able to beat them," Baze said.
Baze's relative good health has played a big part in his ability to close in on all-time wins record. He has never been involved in any near-fatal crashes, although he did miss a month of riding last summer after breaking his left collarbone. He missed two months in the fall of 2003 after breaking his right collarbone. He understands falling is all a part of the business.
"My dad told me that when I started riding, you're going to go down," Baze said.
Going into Friday night's card, Baze was only 206 wins behind Pincay. The win record is the next milestone on Baze's list and he figures he'll reach that mark some time at the end of the year. There is also a chance that he could put the mark far out of reach as he has no timetable on when to head out to pasture.
"I suppose that (retirement) point will come, but not in the near future," Baze said. "I don't see any end in sight. I suppose when I get around 50 or so, I think about it.
"I have a lot of things I want to accomplish."
Maybe those accomplishments will include mounts in the Preakness and Belmont.<