Russell Baze took the racing world by surprise last week when he announced his career as a jockey was over. But the low-key fashion in which the Hall of Fame rider made his retirement known was pretty much in keeping with the way he has conducted himself throughout his remarkable career.
“He's so humble,” Ray Harris, Baze's longtime agent, said last Sunday to Mike Willman on the radio program “Thoroughbred Los Angeles.” With Baze, “it's always been about the horses, not him.”
And so it was that Baze did not want a big fuss made regarding his retirement. He wanted to do it his way, which was to show up for work, ride for the final time, go home and then let the world know he was done as a jockey. And that was exactly how he did it.
But Baze pretty much has been doing it his way ever since he began his riding career. His way was to go out and give it his all, race after race, day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. His way was to give it his all whether he was riding in a bottom-level claiming race or a graded stakes race. His way was to dedicate himself to his profession and to his family rather than go out and party all night, like many a jockey has been known to do.
Baze did not announce his retirement until after he rode his final race. That was not the case with John Longden. In 1966, Longden, who at the time was the world's leading jockey in victories, announced ahead of time that his final ride would be on George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita Park.
In storybook fashion, George Royal and Longden won by a nose. It's regarded as one of the three greatest moments in the history of the Great Race Place, with the other two being Seabiscuit's victory in the final start of his career in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap and Zenyatta's unbelievable come-from-behind win in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic.
Longden retired with a world-record 6,026 wins. Bill Shoemaker eventually would break Longden's record. And everyone certainly knew ahead of time when Bill Shoemaker rode his final race. The name of the race let the cat out of the bag. It was a $107,850 stakes race at one mile on the grass called The Legend's Last Ride Handicap. It took place at Santa Anita on Feb. 3, 1990. Shoemaker rode Patchy Groundfog for trainer Julio Canani. Patchy Groundfog finished fourth in a field of 11 as the 7-10 favorite while 64,573 emotional fans looked on. Exemplary Leader, ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye, won the race.
I called the official Daily Racing Form chart for Shoemaker's final race as a jockey. In the days leading up to that race, I gave considerable thought as to how I would handle the chart comments. Because it was a special occasion, I felt it should be treated as such. I wanted to include Shoemaker's number of career mounts and victories in the chart. But I also realized it should be written in such a way as to still be accurate even if Shoemaker resumed riding in the future. After all, many jockeys have announced their retirement, only to later come out of retirement.
Here is what I wrote for The Legend's Last Ride Handicap chart regarding Patchy Groundfog and Shoemaker:
“PATCHY GROUNDFOG, with jockey William Shoemaker having announced that this would be the 40,350th and final ride of his career, came away in alert fashion, sat slightly off the lead through the early stages while outside SPLENDOR CATCH, had a short lead for several strides between calls after passing the furlong marker but then weakened slightly in the closing yards to finish fourth, keeping it at a record 8,833 lifetime victories for Shoemaker.”
At the time, many thought Shoemaker's world record of 8,833 might stand forever. It didn't.
When Laffit Pincay Jr. won with Irish Nip at Hollywood Park on Dec. 10, 1999, he surpassed Shoemaker's total. Pincay rode his final race at Santa Anita on March 1, 2013. However, unlike Longden and Shoemaker, nobody knew it was Pincay's final ride at the time. That's because it was not Pincay's final ride by choice.
Pincay's riding career ended when he was injured during a race on Santa Anita's turf course. He was unseated from Trampus Too, who clipped the heels of Rainman's Request. Rainman's Request, ridden by Tony Farina, had drifted into Trampus Too's path. Rainbow's Request was disqualified and placed last. I remember that race well. At the time, I was on the set by the Santa Anita winner's circle with Kurt Hoover during the Fox2 television broadcast.
When Pincay announced his riding career was over in 2003, he had a total of 9,530 victories. And once again, at that time, many thought nobody would ever surpass his total. But Pincay actually predicted either Pat Day or Russell Baze eventually would do it. And it turned out to be Baze.
When Baze won the fourth race on Butterfly Belle at Bay Meadows on Dec. 1, 2006, it was his 9,531st victory, which surpassed Pincay's total.
Before Baze overtook Pincay in 2006, Pincay had this to say about Baze: “Russell's a great jockey. He works very hard and he loves to ride. When I went up to Northern California to ride, I always admired Russell's dedication. He always keeps himself in good shape. He's a very strong rider. The best thing about him is he's competitive and loves what he does.”
One of Pincay's many attributes was his strength. His brute strength enabled him to win a lot of photo finishes through the years. In the press boxes at Southern California tracks, when Pincay's strength seemingly made the difference in a close finish, it often was referred to as “a Pincay power play.”
Baze's strength as a rider engendered a nickname: Russell the Muscle.
Pincay was 56 when his illustrious career as a jockey came to an end. Baze retired last week at the age of 57.
On June 11, the same day that Creator won this year's Belmont Stakes, Baze rode his final race. He finished in a dead heat for second on Wahine Warrior in the 10th race at Golden Gate Fields. Baze's final career victory turned out to be aboard Vow to Be Tops on June 11 at that Northern California track. Also on June 11 at Golden Gate, Baze won the Albany Stakes aboard Chips All In. It was Baze's final stakes victory.
Earlier this year on April 16, Baze suffered a broken collarbone in a race at Golden Gate. After that incident, his wife, Tami, and some other family members urged him to retire. Not only that, if Baze did continue riding for much longer, he was going to have to get a new agent. Harris, who had hooked up with Baze in 1979, had told Baze shortly after Baze's April 16 mishap that he would be retiring soon to Sedona, Ariz.
As a result of the collarbone injury at his age, the wishes of his family and the agent situation, Baze realized it was about time to retire. But he wanted keep riding until the end of the Golden Gate meet on June 12. And that was what he did. Again, he did it his way. Baze had hoped to go out by winning the riding title at the Golden Gate meet. He did win the title with 125 wins, 14 more than runner-up Juan Hernandez. Incredibly, it was Baze's 54th riding title at Golden Gate.
RODE 400 OR MORE WINNERS IN A YEAR 13 TIMES
In 1999, Baze was honored with a Special Eclipse Award for being the first jockey to win 400 or more races in a year for four consecutive years.
“As it turned out, the award was premature,” Daily Racing Form executive columnist and Hall of Fame writer Jay Hovdey noted last week. “Before he was through he did it nine more times, most recently in 2009, at the age of 51.”
Baze retired as a jockey last week having ridden in a world record 53,578 Thoroughbred races and having won a world-record 12,842 Thoroughbred races. Jorge Ricardo in South America is believed to be about 100 wins behind Baze. Ricardo has said he will never retire until he overtakes Baze. Now that Baze is retired, how does he feel about that?
“More power to him,” Baze was quoted as saying in a Daily Racing Form story written by Chuck Dybdal.
A great many of Baze's colleagues consider his feat of riding over 50,000 races to be a tremendous achievement in itself.
Fellow Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has ridden in 32,523 races. He is still going strong at the age of 50. He won both graded stakes races at Santa Anita last weekend, the Grade II Summertime Oaks aboard Songbird and Grade II Honeymoon Stakes on Cheekaboo. Smith, for one, has said it's mindboggling that Baze has ridden in more than 50,000 races.
Baze rode in his 50,000th Thoroughbred race at Golden Gate on Jan. 25, 2013. He finished third on Finish Rich in Nyc.
“The ironman of Thoroughbred racing,” was how Baze was referred to in Barry Bearak's outstanding in-depth 2013 feature story on the rider that appeared in the New York Times.
When Baze rode his 50,000th Thoroughbred race, many regarded it as a big deal. Not Baze. He called it “just another day at the office.”
REGULAR RIDER OF CHAMPION LOST IN THE FOG
Baze will forever be associated with the marvelous sprinter Lost in the Fog. Baze rode the fast colt in 10 of his 11 career wins. Lost in the Fog was voted a 2005 Eclipse Award as champion sprinter. Sadly, Lost in the Fog died of cancer in 2006.
It looked like Baze had a good chance to win the 1998 Kentucky Derby with Event of the Year. That colt was going to take a four-for-four career record into the Run for the Roses, with Baze aboard for each of those four victories. However, Event of the Year was not able to run in the Kentucky Derby because of a knee injury sustained eight days before the race.
When Hawkster ran a freakish race and broke the 1 1/2-mile world record in
the 1989 Oak Tree Invitational, Baze was the pilot. Baze had picked up the mount as a replacement for Patrick Valenzuela. When Hawkster opened a big early lead, nearly everyone felt he couldn't possibly then win such a long race. Hawkster reached the finish line the first time, with a lap to go, leading by seven lengths. He was nine in front with a half-mile left to run. But win he did, by four lengths, completing the 1 1/2 miles in 2:22 4/5.
Baze rode champion Shared Belief in one of his races. Shared Belief was voted a 2013 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. In Shared Belief's first start at 3, he won a six-furlong allowance race at Golden Gate by 4 1/4 lengths with Baze in the saddle. Baze also was aboard Shared Belief in a number of morning workouts at that track.
Great Communicator, Simply Majestic and Super Moment also have been named by Baze as some of the best horses he ever rode.
Baze won the most important race in the Pacific Northwest, the Longacres Mile, three times. He won it in 1988 on Simply Majestic, in 2003 on Sky Jack and in 2004 on Adreamisborn. Sky Jack ran one mile at Emerald Downs near Seattle in 1:33 to equal the state record set by Slew of Damascus in the 1993 Yakima Mile at Yakima Meadows. Courtesy of Sky Jack's trainer, Doug O'Neill, I have the two front shoes Sky Jack wore the day he won the Longacres Mile beneath Baze.
BAZE AND ICHIRO
Some have knocked Baze for being a big fish in a small pond for his entire career except for when he rode in Southern California for about three years in the late 1980s. A lot of people feel Baze's huge number of wins is tainted because almost all of them came “in the minor leagues.”
Somewhat similarly, there was a controversy last week when baseball's Ichiro Suzuki recorded his 4,257th lifetime hit to surpass Pete Rose's total. However, all 4,256 of Rose's hits came in this country's major leagues, while 1,278 of Suzuki's hits came during the nine years he played in the Japanese league before he started playing in the majors in this country.
“Whether it's Japan or whether it's here in America, 3,000 hits are a lot of hits,” Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels was quoted as saying in a Los Angeles Times story written by Bill Shaikin. “It doesn't matter where you do it.”
It is true that Longden, Shoemaker and Pincay all had a much tougher time winning races at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar than Baze did at the Northern California tracks. But, much like what Pujols said of Ichiro, it's also true that 12,842 wins as a jockey are a lot of wins, no matter where you do it.
Yes, Baze won 12,842 Thoroughred races. Baze's truly amazing total is 3,312 more than Pincay, who still ranks second in terms of all-time North American wins.
BAZE'S FIRST WIN CAME IN 1974
In 1974, the average cost of a gallon of gas was 53 cents. A Racing Form cost $1.
In August, as a consequence of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign. Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th president.
Russell Baze started out as a jockey in 1974 at Walla Walla, a little unsanctioned track in Southeastern Washington. Baze's father, Joe Baze, also had started out as a jockey at Walla Walla in the 1950s.
Joe Baze had a successful career as a jockey. Among his many accomplishments, he won two riding titles at Longacres near Seattle in 1950s. Probably his finest feat came on a spring day in 1965 when he rode six winners from eight mounts on the April 12 card at Golden Gate. On April 16, 1992, Russell set a Northern California record for most victories on a single card when he won with seven of his nine mounts at Golden Gate.
In the fall of 1974, on Oct. 30, Muhammed Ali regained the world heavyweight title by defeating George Foreman in their fight in Zaire, known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Many consider that Ali-Foreman fight to be the greatest sporting event of the 20th century.
Two days before Ali beat Foreman, Russell Baze officially began his career as a jockey at Yakima Meadows, a one-mile track in Central Washington.
Baze's first official Thoroughbred victory came aboard Oregon Warrior in the sixth race at Yakima Meadows on Oct. 28, 1974. I was there that day. I had begun working for the Daily Racing Form that year.
Oregon Warrior won a six-furlong sprint for $1,250 claimers with a $700 purse by 2 1/2 lengths on a muddy track. He paid $8, $4.10 and $2.50 across the board. The attendance at the track that afternoon was 1,931.
At Santa Anita in 2002, Russell Baze received the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. One of the most coveted awards in all of racing, the Woolf Award, which can only be won once, is presented to a different jockey each year and recognizes those riders whose careers and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
When I interviewed Baze between races at Santa Anita that day for the track's simulcast network, I asked him if he remembered his first win at Yakima Meadows in 1974 on Oregon Warrior.
“I sure do,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “My dad told me how I should ride the horse. He told me to get him out of the gate as good as I can, then keep him in the clear. So I stayed wide the entire race, even though I was clear and could have moved down to the [inside] rail. After the race, after my dad had seen me win despite pretty much being in the middle of the track the whole race, he said, 'Son, that wasn't exactly what I had in mind.'
“My dad sure didn't think it was too good that I stayed out in the middle of the track the whole race,” Russell said with a chuckle.
That was one thing Bearak got wrong in his New York Times story.
Joe Baze “told his 16-year-old son to keep to the outside,” Bearak wrote. “Just to be sure, Russell steered the animal five wide of the others on both turns.”
A 5 1/2-furlong race at Yakima Meadows was around one turn, not two.
When Russell Baze won his first official Thoroughbred race on a rainy autumn afternoon at Yakima Meadows in 1974, nobody could have possibly known it would be the first of 12,842 victories.
According to Equibase, these are the Top 25 all-time leading North American jockeys in wins through June 21:
12,842 Russell Baze
9,530 Laffit Pincay Jr.
8,833 Bill Shoemaker
8,803 Pat Day
7,396 David Gall
7,141 Chris McCarron
7,057 Angel Cordero Jr.
6,900 Edgar Prado
6,795 Jorge Velasquez
6,727 Mario Pino
6,611 Perry Ouzts
6,470 Earlie Fires
6,450 Sandy Hawley
6,388 Larry Snyder
6,383 Eddie Delahoussaye
6,349 Carl Gambardella
6,032 John Longden
5,894 Jerry Bailey
5,747 Kent Desormeaux
5,536 Terry Houghton
5,529 John Velazquez
5,333 Mike Smith
5,228 Jacinto Vasquez
5,226 Ronald Ardoin
5,222 Mark Guidry