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Andy Furillo: Russell Baze still lays it on the line at California State Fair

Jockey Russell Baze rides "Michael's Kiss" during the California State Fair's thoroughbred racing at Cal Expo, Sept. 6, 2009.
Jockey Russell Baze rides "Michael's Kiss" during the California State Fair's thoroughbred racing at Cal Expo, Sept. 6, 2009. Sacramento Bee file

The temperature hit 97 degrees on the withered-yellow infield in front of the concrete-gray grandstand when Russell Baze, wearing black silks with white sleeves and red bow tie, strode across the paddock for the 52,686th race of his career.

In the seventh stall, a gelded 4-year-old named Latitudefortytwo waited for him.

It was the ninth race Thursday at the California State Fair meet at Cal Expo, the horse-racing equivalent of Double-A baseball. You couldn’t spot a mint julep or a fancy hat anywhere on the rail of this park where the customers prefer Bud Light and baseball caps. But trainer Victor Trujillo knew one thing when he boosted Baze into the irons.

“Russell is Russell, and he’s going to give you 110 (percent) every time,” Trujillo said.

At 56, Baze, who won six of seven races Friday, is in the 41st year of his Hall of Fame career. At the close of business Friday, he had won 12,602 races, thousands more than legends such as Laffit Pincay Jr., and Bill Shoemaker, more than Angel Cordero Jr., Pat Day and Eddie Arcaro – more than anybody who has ever climbed aboard a horse in the history of thoroughbred racing.

$19.5 million-plus Russell Baze’s career winnings

Baze’s mounts have returned more than $195 million in purse money, including the $1,275 that went to Latitudefortytwo’s owners for his third-place finish in Thursday’s ninth. Russell’s 10 percent cut gave him a $127.50 paycheck to deposit on top of the $19.5 million-plus he’s made since he first rode the ovals at Walla Walla and Yakima in the Washington state outback. The paydays have averaged about $476,000 a season in Baze’s career.

He lives in the mountainside enclave of Woodside, astride the saddle of the coastal range running up the spine of San Mateo County. His life is good, and it received its due acclaim in 1999 when he was enshrined in the United States Racing Hall of Fame. Two years ago, Barry Bearak wrote him up in a New York Times profile. So did CNN.

His fortune and fame may as well have been stashed in Woodside on the hot Thursday afternoon when he emerged from the Cal Expo jockey’s room four times to ride in nothing better than a $16,000 claimer. Rather than in the etheric coastal air of Del Mar, Baze risked life and health under a relentless Valley sun in his ongoing effort to get the best out of these half-tonbeasts of prickly temperament. Only a few hundred fans stuck around for the ninth race, when Baze put himself on the line in a $4,000 claiming race, about as far down the totem pole as the sport gets in America.

And he did it for no good reason other than why anybody does anything in the human condition.

“I don’t think anybody would do anything as long as I’ve done this if you didn’t love doing it,” Baze said at the end of his workday. “I really enjoy my job. I like the competition. I enjoy putting my wits and skills against the other guys. It’s just a great job.”

Of all Baze’s wins, the most significant has to be when he brought Hawkster home first in the 1989 Oak Tree Invitational at Santa Anita. They finished the mile-and-a-half on turf in 2:22 4/5. It still stands as a world record.

Horse racing’s winningest jockey has ridden twice in the Kentucky Derby. In 1996, he finished 14th aboard Semoran, under the banner of Bob Baffert, the white-haired trainer of this year’s Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Baze gave it another shot at Churchill Downs in 2006 with top Northern California trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s Cause to Believe. They finished 13th.

Of all Baze’s wins, the most significant has to be his score on Oct. 14, 1989, when he brought Hawkster home first in the Oak Tree Invitational at Santa Anita. They finished the mile-and-a-half on turf in 2:22 4/5. It still stands as a world record.

“He was lugging out hard the whole way,” Baze said. “The last quarter-mile I was getting after him to make sure he kept running. He finished up good and strong for me. I didn’t have any idea he’d set a world record.”

Along with Hawkster, Baze has ridden and won with million-dollar horses such as Lost in the Fog and Bold Chieftain, a couple of favorites in a career that his seen him dominate the Northern California circuit. Nine times, he accompanied the El Camino Real Derby champion at Golden Gate Fields, the prep for 3-year-olds that arguably is the region’s most important race.

I don’t care if it’s a $5,000 claimer and it’s for third place, he always gives full effort – everything he’s got.

Mary Panian, an assistant trainer, on Russell Baze

Jockeys looking for the biggest scores on the West Coast work the Southern California tracks. Baze did all right down there before he moved north some 30 years ago. Now, he’s the King of NorCal, and his coronation guarantees him a top horse every time out.

“You can’t win a lot of races unless you’ve got good stock underneath you,” Baze said. “Every rider has to go where they put him on stock that wins. The trainers have been very supportive of me here.”

Baze, of course, leads the jockey standings in the fair-circuit meet that continues today and Sunday and concludes next weekend. He’s won 10 races in 26 starts and has been in the money 77 percent of the time. On Thursday, he delivered the show-money three times. He also got a few bucks for the owners, if not the players, with an additional fourth-place finish. He pocketed $721.50 for the day’s work.

“I don’t care if it’s a $5,000 claimer and it’s for third place, he always gives full effort – everything he’s got,” said Mary Panian, an assistant trainer who saddled Hurricaine Callie in the fourth race. “He’s a true competitor.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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