On Track with Johnny D: Baze Days

While we were on vacation the man who has won more races than any other jockey in the universe retired. Such a notable farewell after 42 years in the saddle warrants more than a mere passing comment from this peanut gallery.

Russell Baze’s retirement, at 57, marks the conclusion of an amazing career, chock-full of so much winning and blue-collar work ethic that it borders on boring. In an age when athletes Tweet, Facebook and Instagram their opinions, feelings and latest contract negotiations, Russell Baze represented a throwback to the days when we marveled at humble athletic heroes--the strong, silent types. Baze wore a hard hat (actually) and toted a lunch pale (figuratively) to work each day. His tremendous success was no accident. To paraphrase a line made popular by the late John Houseman on a Smith Barney commercial, ‘He eeeearned it.’

Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze went out on pretty much like he went about his daily business—without fanfare or flash. After finishing second aboard Wahine Warrior in the 10th race at Golden Gate June 10—the meet’s final race—Baze told friend and longtime agent Ray Harris he was through riding. Harris said he was ‘surprised, but happy.’ He wanted to see the rider ‘retire sound,’ and got his wish. Baze, of course, was not immediately available for comment.

Most nationwide horseplayers are familiar with the name Russell Baze. After all, he departs with a world-leading 12,842 wins. However, since he was all ‘hands and heels’ on the lower-profile Northern California circuit for the vast majority of his career there’s an excellent chance that many do not know much more about him and his career. For example, on a recent ranking of the top 250 Active Jockeys in North America at Horseracingnation.com, as voted on by racing fans, Russell Baze, the world’s winningest rider, checked in 35th! That relatively low ranking represents poor brand awareness…something Baze probably never cared much about.

Agent/friend Harris summed up Baze in a nutshell to the Paulick Report, “His work ethic. He’s got a good family and no bad habits—and he’s pretty smart. He’s just a good rider.”

OK, Ray. That’s it? Really?

Yep. That’s Russell Baze: tremendous work ethic, a good family and no bad habits. Pretty simple success formula, don’t you think?

As much as any Thoroughbred foaled in the Blue Grass, Russell Baze, too, was born into the sport in Vancouver, British Columbia. His father Joe Baze was a leading rider in Washington and Northern California and it’s nearly impossible to find a west coast track backside from Vancouver to Del Mar that doesn’t boast at least one Baze extended family member. Baze now retires to an immediate family that includes wife Tami, daughters Trinity, Brandi, Cassie, and son Gable.

While horseplayers in Northern California for the last thirty-plus years respected Russell Baze, he often also attracted their ire for being too good. In fact, it can be argued that Baze was so much better in the saddle than his peers that he actually represented a negative to the overall wagering business. Race in and race out, horseplayers were forced to either back Baze’s mounts at ridiculously short prices or to wager against them and lose. A witty Tweet by @BeemieAwards suggested that Golden Gate Fields ‘retire’ Russell Baze’s number. Those digits? 3/5, of course!

The facts, as outlined in a Baze retirement piece at PaulickReport.com, speak for themselves: He was leading rider at Golden Gate 54 times! He also topped all riders at Bay Meadows 40 times! Talk about your dynasties! Baze was a riding win machine, and whenever he joined forces with Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer? Fugetaboutit!

Detractors view Baze’s accomplishments as being ‘less than’ because they were achieved against presumably inferior competition. In late 2006, when he roared past Laffit Pincay’s all-time record number of wins with 9,531 tallies and no end in sight, purists cringed. Pincay, like all-time win champ Bill Shoemaker before him, had competed against the very best jockeys in the world in New York and California. Baze appeared as the proverbial ‘big fish in a little pond’ and an earlier aborted attempt at competing in Southern California against the very best on a regular basis did little to silence critics.

Remarkably, in a 42-year career that has included 53,578 mounts, Baze’s resume lists just five Grade 1 Stakes victories—all in Southern California except for the King’s Bishop at Saratoga. They are the Ancient Title, 2010 Smiling Tiger; King’s Bishop, 2005 Lost in the Fog; Oak Tree Invitational, 1989 Hawkster and 1984 Both Ends Burning; and Santa Monica, 1991 Devil’s Orchid. By contrast, according to @GaryDougherty, as of June 27, jockey John Velazquez already had won 5 Grade 1 Stakes this year!

It’s difficult, however, to imagine that any criticism ever bothered Russell Baze. He was too busy being Russell Baze. And perhaps, that simplistic, yet incredibly challenging achievement—to consistently be one’s self-- is his greatest gift to the sport. Day in, day out, from sunrise morning workouts until the sun had set on the afternoon’s final ‘official,’ Russell Baze was all about being the best he could be…on the track and off…with family, friends, fellow riders, trainers and horses.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Baze Days

On Track with Johnny D |