Four races later, long after most jockeys would have thrown their accomplishment into a duffel, taken off the rest of their mounts and headed for the biggest bottle of bubbly, Baze was still digging in at a late hour at Golden Gate Fields. Chad Schvaneveldt had called in sick, so Baze took his place to ride a filly in the next-to-last race. That catch ride won, too, a small step as Baze began his inexorable pursuit of No. 11,000.
Two Step Cat hadn't reached the test barn last Friday when Baze, in effect, put Jorge Ricardo on notice that the winningest jockey on the planet might not necessarily reside down South America way. In the winner's circle at Golden Gate, Baze, when asked about any retirement plans, said: "This isn't the final milestone. In another three years, I might be standing here again (with 11,000 wins)."
Ricardo is 46, three years younger than Baze. Riding since he was 15, he reached the 10,000-win mark on Jan. 9 in in Argentina, and through Jan. 31 had totaled 10,041 wins. From afar, Ricardo and Baze will be eyeballing each other until one or the other calls it a day. I'm setting the over/under at six years for both jockeys.
"I don't know yet when I'm going to retire," Ricardo said recently. "I'll ride as long as my health permits. But, above all else, my idea is to retire after Russell Baze does and with the world record (for wins) in my hands."
In another life, I covered baseball, and I once asked Walter Alston, who was then managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, if he ever contemplated retirement. Alston looked at me like I was sporting two heads. "Retire?" he said, acting as though this was the first time he'd ever heard the word. "What would I do then?"
Besides trying to overtake Ricardo, Baze still has some work to do. He's never won a Kentucky Derby or a Breeders' Cup race, and has had only a scintilla of opportunities in both venues. His best chance in the Breeders' Cup fell apart when Lost in the Fog, at 7-10, finished seventh in the Sprint at Belmont Park in 2005. No one knew it then, but Lost in the Fog, who had never been beaten, was probably in the early stages of an incurable cancer at the time.
Baze's only two appearances in the Derby have been with no-hopers who finished up the track. Bouncing from one low-level claimer to another in Northern California, it is unlikely that he'll ever land on a hot Derby contender. When trainers outside Golden Gate and Bay Meadows go shopping for a name jockey for one of their 3-year-olds, they turn to the money list, not the total-wins department. Even mainstream jockeys, engulfed in quality stock, have struggled to win the Derby. Laffit Pincay was 0 for 10 before Swale; Pat Day was 0 for 9 before Lil E. Tee; and Mike Smith went 0 for 11 prior to Giacomo.
If being blanked, and hardly ever present, on racing's biggest days has ever gnawed at Baze, he's never let on. Stats like that didn't bother Hall of Fame voters when they elected him in 1999. The other jockeys on the ballot that year were Earlie Fires and the late Jack Westrope, who have both been subsequently enshrined.
It doesn't take two full hands to count the number of Grade I races that Baze has won. One of them, with Hawkster in the Oak Tree Invitational, came after Pat Valenzuela, the notorious no-show, went AWOL at Santa Anita in 1989.
When matters like these are brought up, Baze smiles his toothy smile and is ready with an answer. "That stuff doesn't bother me," he says convincingly. "Everybody's entitled to their opinion. I always say that if it's so easy to win all these races on a minor circuit, why hasn't somebody else done it?"
Baze left what Ernie Banks would call the "friendly confines" to ride in Southern California in 1989. That's why he was at liberty in the jocks' room the day Valenzuela stiffed Hawkster's trainer. He finished second at two Southland meets, Del Mar and Oak Tree, but was still an interloper in a riding colony that included Pincay, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens and Eddie Delahoussaye. His stakes mounts were limited, and in the other races he'd frequently end up on sore horses. His win total in 1990 was 125, his lowest output in 11 years. A broken collarbone also slowed him down, and by the middle of 1991, he was back in Northern California.
Since 1992, Baze has averaged 402 wins a year. At one point, he surpassed the 400 mark in 11 of 12 years. No other jockey has ever eclipsed the 400 mark more than three times.
"He'll ride a $4,000 claimer as hard as a stakes horse because he just wants to win races," said Armando Lage, the trainer of Two Step Cat, Baze's 10,000th winner.
Greg Gilchrist, trainer of Lost in the Fog, remembers a raw winter afternoon when one of the Northern California tracks looked like something out of doomsday.
"It was getting dark, and the rain was coming down sideways," Gilchrist said. "The mud was a foot deep. But Russell stuck around for the last race, just to ride an $8,000 claimer. I looked up at the TV, and there he was, smiling as he went into the gate."
Last week, after he dismounted from Two Step Cat, somebody handed Russell Baze a black baseball cap, with the numbers 10,000 across the front. The prop man must have been asleep. Perennial good-guy Baze should be wearing a white hat in those parts.