Johnny Longden. Bill Shoemaker. Laffit Pincay Jr.

Those legendary jockeys have held the most revered record in horse racing for the last 50 years.

The record is just about to be passed to a much more anonymous rider, a man who has never won a Triple Crown race or a Breeders’ Cup race, a man who has chosen to ride where he can win, where he could raise a family, a man who has been so consistently good for so long that once he gets the record, there is a real chance he might hold it forever.

Russell Baze has 9,528 winners entering this afternoon’s card at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, Calif. Pincay’s record is 9,530.

Longden got to a record 4,871 on Labor Day 1956 and retired 10 years later with 6,032. Shoemaker caught Longden on Labor Day 1970. Shoe got it up to 8,833 before retiring in 1990. Pincay was 52 when he passed Shoe in 1999 and would have probably run the record up to 10,000 if his career hadn’t been ended by a racing injury in 2003.

No active rider is within 3,000 of Baze, so he really might take permanent ownership of the record. He could have ridden in New York or Kentucky or Southern California and gotten mounts in the television races. He chose to ride in the minor leagues of Northern California, where he is the king.

Some wonder if Baze, 48, is deserving of the record because he did not compete against all the best riders all the time. If what he was doing were easy, of course, some other off-Broadway rider would be the recordholder. Baze is the one who kept showing up day after day, year after year, decade after decade. When he gets the record, he will deserve it.

“A win is a win wherever,” said the legendary Pincay, who always sort of knew Baze was going to beat his record.

“I guess my biggest inspiration for coming out here is I really enjoy what I do,” Baze said during a recent teleconference. “I love coming out here and getting on horses. I like the animals, I like the competition and I like the thrill of the races.”

Still, there are the hard, heartbreaking numbers. Since 1941, a total of 143 jockeys have been killed on the track. Another 58 are permanently disabled.

“I think you’d be stupid if you didn’t have fear that something could happen, but you cannot let it rule what you do out there,” Baze said. “You can’t let it affect you. You push it way back to the back of your mind. If something happens, at that moment you feel fear, the moment passes, and on you go.

“If fear is going to be in the forefront of your thinking, you probably just better not go out there because, for starters, you’re going to be very ineffective.”

You’re not going to be able to make the choices that you need to make at the time you need to make them. And you’re going to be dangerous to ride with because you’re going to make mistakes out of fear. So, it’s not a place for the weak of heart.”

Through it all, Baze has kept riding up no matter what. He has had five compression fractures in his back, a torn disc, a broken vertebra, three broken collarbones, cracked ribs, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, several concussions – the normal array of injuries for his profession.

Baze was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, into a racing family. Father Joe was a jockey who became a trainer. Baze has cousins who rode and cousins who still ride. He rode his first winner on Oct. 28, 1974, at Yakima Meadows in Washington. Thirty-two years later, he is about to become the Cal Ripken of his sport.

You don’t win 9,531 races by accident. It is called horse racing for a reason, but if riders didn’t matter, the best horse would always win.

“It’s kind of like playing chess,” Baze said of riding. “You can’t just look at the next move you’re going to make, you have to plan your strategy and look a couple of moves ahead.”

Baze is something of a cross between the style of Shoemaker and the strength of Pincay. He had to wait until last year to hook up with his horse of a lifetime – the wonderful sprinter Lost in the Fog. For a while, it looked like they would never lose. Then, the Fog got cancer and was put down this summer. Baze rides on.

“He rides good horses and bad horses just the same, just like me,” Pincay said.

Baze takes Mondays off. He works horses on Tuesdays. He works them in the morning and rides them in the afternoon races the other five days.

How dominant has Baze been? He has won at least 400 races in 11 of the last 14 years. No other rider has won 400 races more than three times. The Isaac Murphy Award for the rider with the best annual winning percentage has been given 11 times. Baze has won it 10 times. He has won 37 riding titles at Bay Meadows, 29 at Golden Gate Fields, the other track on the Northern California circuit. He was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1999.

There is all that. There is this record, the one that only the legends have held.

“It became a very real possibility with the unfortunate accident that ended Laffit’s career,” Baze said. “Up to that point, he was a moving target. I was slowly reeling him in.”

Shoemaker was there when Pincay broke his record and Pincay has promised to be there when Baze breaks his record.

“I would still be riding if I hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Pincay, who turns 60 on Dec. 29 and would weigh 150 if he weren’t the most disciplined athlete on earth. “I never let myself go. I go to the track in the morning and everything thinks I’m coming back.”

Unlike Pincay, who practically had to starve himself to make weight, Baze is a more natural lightweight. Like Pincay, he wants to ride as long as he can.

“I think 10,000 is not unreachable,” Baze said.



(c) 2006, Philadelphia Daily News.

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AP-NY-11-29-06 0627EST


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