Jockeys get chance at No. 1 now that Russell Baze’s run is over

Baze's retirement brings opportunity for top Northern Californian jockey

A look into the life of jockey Juan Hernandez, originally of Mexico, who is currently one of the top jockey picks in Northern California.
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A look into the life of jockey Juan Hernandez, originally of Mexico, who is currently one of the top jockey picks in Northern California.

They came, they competed, they accepted their fate, or they moved on.

For the past three decades, dozens of talented jockeys – two of them eventual Kentucky Derby winners – had the second-most wins during a major Northern California horse racing meet. None ever had more than Russell Baze.

The only sure thing in racing is that there isn’t one. But Baze being the leading rider at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows – he won 94 titles between the two tracks – was as close as you get. He dominated at the State Fair, too.

Baze abruptly retired June 14, just before the start of the annual fair circuit that continues this weekend at Cal Expo. He was 57 with an all-time record of 12,842 wins and still going strong. The absence of “Russell Muscle” means there are suddenly 300-plus annual Northern California wins and riding titles up for grabs.

Whoever steps forward, it won’t be the same, trainer Andy Mathis said.

“There will be a new leading rider, but there will not be another Russell Baze,” Mathis said.

“It’s not just talent. Like Cal Ripken, maybe not the best baseball player you ever saw, but it’s hard to find people with that kind of desire. Purse money didn’t make a difference to Baze. Maiden race. One hundred degrees in Stockton. He gave you the same effort as if he were riding in the Kentucky Derby. He just wanted to win.

“Put a few million dollars in my bank account, I’m not getting up at 3 a.m. every morning – 99.99 percent of people are not wired (like Baze).”

Trainers, who decide which jockeys to use, and jockey agents, who secure riding engagements, say riding ability and all that entails – anticipation, split-second decisions on animals running more than 30 mph, fearlessness – largely will determine Baze’s successor. But there’s much more to it. Other factors are a jockey agent’s knack for picking the right horses and getting his rider connected with top barns, the jockey’s work ethic and dependability, his intelligence and his durability to withstand a physically demanding lifestyle.

Genes, too. A jockey who isn’t always fighting to remain at his riding weight is more effective than one who is, insiders say.

“No matter how good you are, or how hard you work, if you don’t ride for the right people, you’re not going to do any good,” said Dennis Patterson, a jockey agent for 30 years who works on behalf of Kyle Frey. “Riding for live outfits is the key to anyone’s success.”

Baze was the first-call rider for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer for most of his career. At the time of Baze’s retirement, Hollendorfer had 7,180 training wins, third all-time. Baze rode 2,722 of those. He won 31.6 percent of the time he rode for Hollendorfer.

Baze’s dominance – 13 times he led North American riders in wins – presented a dilemma for gamblers. His horses were always over-bet – horses that would have been 4-1 under any other rider were 2-1. Bet against him, he was probably going to beat you. To bet on him, you had to accept odds often half of what they should have been.

Hollendorfer has developed a significant presence in Southern California, so his local impact isn’t what it once was, but being in his good graces is still key. Bill Morey and John Martin, two trainers with more than 200 Northern California starters this year, will have a say in determining the new jockey hierarchy.

Martin, who is winning at a 30 percent clip this year, isn’t one to throw a bone to a rider deep in the standings, even though most of his stable consists of low-level claiming horses. The 30-year veteran doesn’t like to gamble on little-used riders and doesn’t expect riders to gamble with his horses. The fewer mistakes a rider makes, he said, the more he’ll use him, no matter his specific strengths.

“I need aggressive jockeys who are trying hard to win, not just going along for the ride, which actually happens,” Martin said. “The good thing about Baze, he would always come out of the gate good, put the squeeze on somebody. He didn’t get dictated to, like some of the new generation who aren’t as aggressive. Some of these jockeys just ride and take the worst of everything. You can’t let other jockeys put you on the defense.”

Martin likes veteran riders and recently has leaned on 47-year-old Frank Alvarado, who finished second in wins to Baze at least half a dozen times since he started riding in Northern California 16 years ago. Alvarado was the leading rider through the first two weeks of the State Fair.

“Young riders have to earn it,” Martin said. “It’s a very expensive game, and it (stinks) when somebody costs you a lot of money. Owners and trainers put up a lot of money. It’s a business. If you run a live horse, you’ve got to get it home.”

The consensus pick to take over at the top is Juan Hernández, a quick-to-smile 24-year-old Mexican who is winning at a 25.4 percent clip this year. Hernández has been remarkably consistent in Baze’s shadow, winning 183 to 189 races each of the past three years.

Hernández is known for his paciencia – patience – keeping something in reserve, then swooping to the lead just before the finish line. That style works particular well on Golden Gate’s artificial Tapeta surface and in turf races, which both favor closers.

Hernández missed the first two weeks of the fair while visiting family in Mexico City but will ride on the closing weekend.

Also expected to be in the title mix: Ricardo González, 21, a Mexican native in just his fourth year of riding but with 178 and 197 wins the past two years; Frey, 24, from Tracy, who has won more than 100 races in a year just once but won the 2011 Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice and is hitting at 16.9 percent this year; and Alvarado, a Panamanian who has 3,198 career wins, three times more than any jockey on the regional circuit.

González is the kid in a friendly jock’s room. Alvarado, the father figure, still gets it done on horseback.

“Frank is underappreciated,” Frey said. “He’s been a great rider for a long time. With the time he’s put in and the frustration he’s faced running into Baze for so many years, nobody would begrudge him (finishing on top).”

Frey, who does his best work on or pressing the lead, said being the leading jockey is definitely a goal. He missed the first weekend of the fair because of body soreness after his first mount stumbled from the gate and threw him to the ground.

Alejandro Gomez, Catalino Martinez, Abel Cedillo, William Antongeorgi III, Julien Couton win their share and could step forward. Francisco Duran has returned from Emerald Downs near Seattle to ride the Sacramento meet, and other jockeys from other circuits also could relocate in an attempt to fill the Baze vacuum.

One thing all have in common is a shot at No. 1 sans Baze that runners-up over the past three decades didn’t get. That list includes Rafael Meza, Roberto Gonzalez, Jason Lumpkins, Tom Chapman, Ron Warren, Ron Hansen, Chad Schvaneveldt, Kevin Radke, Dennis Carr, Victor Espinoza, Martin Garcia, Michael Martinez and Joel Rosario. Espinoza and Rosario couldn’t topple Baze, but they became top national riders and Kentucky Derby winners.

The title contenders all have mounts in Saturday’s California Governor’s Cup, the richest race of the Sacramento meet. Could one be the next Russell Baze?

“I don’t think you can say that,” said Patterson, who said he has represented at least six riders who finished second to Baze. “We have some good young riders, but Baze was one of a kind. His work ethic was second to none. Times have changed. You don’t see that same drive in people with social media and other distractions. He was an old-school workaholic who was focused 100 percent on being a jockey and being at the top.”

Steve Pajak: 916-326-5526.