Paddock to Post

By Michael-Lewis Ingram
Updated: February 26, 2008

PHILADELPHIA – In all of professional sports, there are very few where the athletes pay the fans.

But when it comes to thoroughbred racing, that’s exactly what you get. The team of horse and rider in sync are pure magic when they get the job done – and get you to the pay window.

One man has been part of that team for 35 years, getting to the winners’ circle more than any other rider in North America.

(On February 1, Russell Baze, North America’s most prolific winner, goes into the gate at Golden Gate Fields aboard Two Step Cat in the third race — at a distance of one mile.

Stuck behind horses, Baze, coming into the stretch, swings his horse to an opening on the rail as the cry of “Muscle Up, Russell!” resounds throughout the Off-Track Betting parlor.

As they come to the wire, Two Step Cat, Brite Oakie and Unusual Men surge forward as they strike the pose.

After two minutes of lobbying over heads and noses, Two Step Cat’s number goes up as first on the tote. Most everyone cheers because with the nod, Baze has earned his 10,000th triumph.

My friend Cyril, who felt he just got jobbed out of the win, looks at the replay of the stretch run, a wry smile on his face before muttering, “I don’t know how the hell Russell Baze won that race.”

Baze on the winning ride: “My horse lay closer than it normally does, but I knew down the stretch I had a shot when things opened up on the rail. That I got the nod at wire was wild. A head bob either way, and the whole order of finish would’ve changed.”)

From northern California to Canada, fans know betting against any hoss ridden by Baze is usually a losing proposition. The 49-year-old Baze has made the aforementioned area his personal stomping ground for over 30 years.

“There are two major northern California tracks — Golden Gate and Bay Meadows,” recalls my friend and fellow handicapper Roger “Roast Beef” Bell. “Russell dominates that area so much the dang track should be renamed ‘Baze Meadows.’”

The figures don’t lie. While in his stronghold, Baze has led all North American riders in terms of wins nine times, and finished 2007 with a North American-best 399 victories. He has won 36 riding titles at Bay Meadows Race Course, and has led all riders in terms of wins 29 times at Golden Gate.

Among his best mounts are 2005 champion sprinter Lost in the Fog, who won13 of his 14 career starts, including wins in the 2005 King’s Bishop (G1), Carry Back (G2), Swale (G2) and Bay Shore (G3) Stakes.

To win a lot of races, you have to have a lot of horses. Since the mid-1980s, Baze has been the number one mount for Jerry Hollendorfer, who has won every Northern California training title since 1986.

Baze reveals another advantage to his success. “The climate in northern California is great,” he laughs. “Very temperate, not too hot. And we have racing all year round. It helps when you can concentrate on your career in a specific area.”

An Eclipse Award winner in 1995, Baze was recognized for being the first jockey to win 400 or more races in a year for four consecutive years. In addition, he has won at least 400 races in 12 of the last 15 years.

Baze is also an 11-time recipient of the Isaac Murphy Award, which is awarded each year by the National Turf Writers Association to the rider with the highest winning percentage in North America.

He also received the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 2002. “It means a lot to be recognized along with a great jockey like Isaac Murphy,” said Baze. I like to win, and always ride to win; but to be able to do so at a high percentage is proof of getting it done.”

In The Blood

Baze hails from a family of horsemen, including his father, Joe, who won riding championships at Bay Meadows, Golden Gate, and Longacres in his native British Columbia before becoming a trainer; his younger brother, Dale, a retired jockey who is now an exercise rider; and a cousin, Gary, a jockey who is a member of the Washington Hall of Fame and former leading rider at Emerald Downs race track.

Baze’s second cousins include Southern California-based jockeys Tyler Baze and Michael Baze.

When asked what aspect means the most to him at this time, Baze revealed his awareness of the current state of racing. “There has to be a better way to bring younger fans into the sport. One thing the tracks here do is promote with using local bands in addition to the card on Friday nights.

And by all means have more people like yourself out there to let sports fans know how hard we work at our craft and that we jockeys are among some of the best athletes in the world.”

In this sport, Russell Baze has all the components needed to excel: timing, touch, tenacity, steely nerves and strong wrists. When the crowd cries, “Muscle Up!” it usually means bad news for any rider a whip length in front or behind of the man who would be king of northern California.

Images courtesy of Vassar Photography.