Saturday, August 14, 2010
Mr. 10,000 Becomes Mr. 11,000
I wrote a book, a history of Bay Meadows, that might be published some day, and Chapter 8 of the final draft is called "Mr. 10,000." Get me rewrite. Russell Baze won his 11,000th race on August 14, and doesn't time fly? It seems like only yesterday that Baze was at 10,000. It seems like only the day before yesterday that he was at 5,000.
Once I worked with a sardonic copy editor named George Kiseda. He played the devil's advocate so well that he should have come to work with a pitchfork, a cape, fake horns and a rubber tail. But Kiseda could also write, so when he attacked your purple prose, you paid attention. When Kiseda covered the NBA, the team in Philadelphia was notorious for padding the gate. So one night, in his game story, he wrote: "The crowd was announced as 12,473. Many of them were disguised as empty seats."
If Kiseda were still on the desk, he'd be asking the same question about Russell Baze. Math is not my forte, but after Baze recorded his 11,000th career win, my abacus showed that he also had 36,235 non-winning mounts. In the argot of the dugout, his batting average is .232, and if Kiseda saw that, he would sniff and say: "Triple-A stuff." He would be wrong, of course. A win rate of .232, over that many races, is Hall of Fame stuff, and the voters sent him into the shrine in 1999.
Everything else since then for the 52-year-old Baze might have seemed like icing on the cake, but his work ethic is relentless. Win No. 11,000 came at the Santa Rosa fair, in a maiden race aboard a filly, named Separate Forest, who had never raced before. "I'm going to keep chipping away," Baze was quoted in the Daily Racing Form. "I don't think 12,000 is out of reach."
It always comes up, every time Baze reaches a milestone, that too many of his wins have come at the Santa Rosas of racing, the boondocks of the game. Baze has heard this plaint before. "None of it bothers me," he once said. "I've done what I've done. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. But my argument to all that is, if it's so easy to win all these races on a minor circuit, how come someone else hasn't done it? I've heard that stuff about being the big fish in a little pond. I think what I am is a mid-sized fish in a mid-sized pond."
Riding most of his career at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows, which isn't there anymore, Baze has seldom found Grade 1 horses in his backyard, but one that actually came out of nowhere was the champion sprinter Lost in the Fog. Greg Gilchrist, who trained Lost in the Fog, best remembered Baze for a race on another horse that didn't mean much. It was a miserable day in San Francisco, one the Chamber of Commerce wouldn't commit to memory, and with the rain coming down in buckets it would have been fashionable for Baze to bolt from the jockeys' room before the last race was run.
"It was getting dark, and the rain was actually coming down sideways," Gilchrist said. "The mud was a foot deep. But Russell stuck around, just to ride an $8,000 claimer. I looked up at a TV set as the horses were getting in the gate. You could hardly see them. But there was Russell, smiling as they loaded his horse."
Baze's career started on another dank day, at another track that's no longer there. He had just cleared 16 in 1974 when his father, Joe Baze, gave him a leg up at Yakima Meadows in Washington State on a $1,250 claimer named Oregon Warrior, who was trying to shake a five-race losing streak.
"This horse doesn't like horses running on the outside of him," was the only instruction that Joe Baze, a former jockey, gave his son.
Baze kept Oregon Warrior five-wide all the way, and they won by 2 1/2 lengths. The young man's share of the purse was $250.
"I was tickled to death," Baze said.
Joe Baze made sure his son rode the right way, and always rode to win.
"You know what makes Russell so good?" said Jason Lumpkins, a jockey who rode against him in Northern California. "He rides every race like it's his last ride."
The day after his record 11,000th win, Baze was to be back at the Santa Rosa fair, on the road to 12,000. He had seven mounts, one of them aboard a 5-year-old mare in the last race. If his horse won, Baze stood to earn about $600, before taxes. He would be tickled to death if that happened.