Thursday, November 30, 2006

Baze blazes to racing record

Congratulations to jockey Russell Baze, who today tied Laffit Pincay Jr.'s record for career wins by notching victory number 9,530 aboard Christie's Fame at Bay Meadows race track.

In all likelihood, Baze will eclipse Pincay sometime tomorrow, as he's scheduled with seven rides on Friday's Bay Meadows program.

A veritable legend in thoroughbred circles around these parts, Baze has, despite rarely appearing in the celebrated Triple Crown and Breeders Cup races, amassed a résumé unparalleled in the history of his sport. He has won at least 400 races in a single year eleven times, a accomplishment no other jockey has attained more than three times. For ten consecutive years (1995-2004), Baze won the award given to the U.S. jockey with the highest winning percentage. Last year, he became only the second jockey in history to tally 9,000 career wins. He has been a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame since 1999.

Baze is an unusual jockey, for several reasons beyond his stunning statistics. He has toiled for most of his career here in northern California, riding at both local tracks — Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields — and on our summer county fair circuit, instead of chasing the greater prestige and purses of the major tracks in southern California. By all accounts, he's a decent, unpretentious family man in an industry filled with sharks and poseurs. And, unlike most jockeys at his level of achievement, he still rises early every morning to work out horses, just because he enjoys being with the animals.

I've had the privilege of watching "Russell the Muscle" bolt to the winner's circle on numerous occasions over the years, during the Sonoma County Fair's annual meet. I just happened to be present on the day eleven years ago when he won his 5,000th career race here. I've never seen him dog a race, give up on a struggling horse down the stretch, or be anything but cheerful and engaging with his many fans. He's a genuine gentleman of the sport of kings.

Baze's current goal, now that he's caught Pincay, is to rack up 10,000 wins before he retires. He's 48 now, but when I saw him at the track this past summer, he certainly looked as though he had another 500 blue ribbons in him, easy. I hope he gets his 10 grand, and more.

Way to go, Russell. Long may you ride.


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