A positive attitude in a 90-pound package
by Kimberly French
hen interviewed shortly after her 2,000th career victory at Turf Paradise astride Decarchy Park on March 1, 2011, the then 46-year-old Vicky Baze was quite clear and extremely concise regarding her future career plans.
“Retirement? Moses didn’t retire,” the 2011 Washington Racing Hall of Fame inductee and first female jockey to compete in the Longacres Mile (G3) quipped.
One of the top three women riders of all time, Baze was born on December 25, 1964, to George and Winnie Meiser in Brunswick, Georgia. Her father was United States Naval officer and her mother was a photographer who hailed from Scotland. The couple met when George was stationed on the USS Proteus in Holy Loch, Scotland, and the Meisers’ only child accompanied her parents around the world, to countries such as Vietnam, Greece and Italy, for her father’s profession.
Baze was not exposed to horses or racing during her youth, but shortly after entering her teens she encountered an article that completely altered the course of her life.
“My dad was stationed in Naples, Italy, when I read a Reader’s Digest story about Steve Cauthen winning the Triple Crown,” she remembered. “That grabbed my attention and got me interested in horses. When something interests me, it sticks like glue, so anytime I got the chance to be around a horse, there I was.
“After my dad was stationed at a NATO base in Naples, and before that in Greece, he thought he would be transferred back to the US, but there was an island just off of Rome and south of Corsica, which is part of France, called Sardinia,” Baze continued. “It was absolutely gorgeous there and the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, besides Washington, of course. My mom had bought me a book that was about teaching yourself how to ride, and some of the Italian farmers nearby had some horses, so that is what I did until I was about 15. I didn’t have very many opportunities, but I stuck with it. Actually, all I was into were horses and [singer] John Denver, as it was the John Denver era.”
When Baze was 16 she convinced her parents to send her to England to pursue her equine passion.
“Since my mother is British – she is from Scotland – we had a lot of family there and I was able to get a job at Craddock Park, which is a famous place in England,” she recalled. “To make a long story short, while I was over there I received a very good background in riding and horsemanship from a former British Riding Society instructor. Her name was Lynn Baldwin and she sure did a good job. She yelled and screamed and made me cry, but I learned a lot. She took no prisoners and that was the truth of the matter.”
Shortly after Baze’s sojourn to the United Kingdom, her father retired from the Navy and purchased a house in Southern California. Directly after she graduated from high school, Baze started “training babies” for a top California conditioner.
“I worked on the farm breaking colts for a guy named Richard Mulhall,” she said. “At the time he was a pretty big trainer who trained for the sheikhs and he had a beautiful ranch in Riverside County. God was really looking out for me. It was a great job for somebody back in 1982, to make $750 a month breaking babies. I was living high on the hog, but after that I migrated to the racetrack and started galloping on the Southern California circuit. I did that in 1983 and 1984. The spring of 1985 is when I went to Seattle and the rest is history.”
The 21-year-old decided to leave California and venture up north to commence her riding career because of her genetic composition.
“If I was a guy ‘bug’ riding in Southern California and with no weight problems, I could have started my career there, but back in the 1980s it was tough” she explained. “I think they [Longacres] were much more accepting of female riders at the time and a lot more inroads had been made. You have the West Coast, the East Coast and all the states in the middle, but it’s almost like different countries. It’s a little more ‘good old boy’ on the [southern] West Coast, but a lot of women had success in Seattle, so I went there. I fell in love with the Northwest, bought my house in 1986 and made a home. Maybe my career would have been a lot different if I had gone to the East Coast a long time ago, but I stayed small and tucked away.”
Tipping the scales at 90 pounds, Baze quickly attracted attention. Within 12 months, on June 6, 1985, she scored her first victory in the saddle at Longacres, in Renton, aboard Sir Jeppi for former Green Bay Packers standout turned conditioner Junior Coffey. She officially began riding at Yakima Meadows in March of that year, but found good mounts tough to come by until she hired an agent.
“We have been fans of Vicky Aragon Baze since she began riding at Longacres,” wrote longtime Washington owners Melvin and Helen Beck in an e-mail on March 8, 2011. “Junior Coffey was promoting her to anybody willing to listen to him. She had quite a struggle because the male jockeys did everything they could to intimidate her, but she wouldn’t give in to their boorish on-track treatment. For example, in one race we watched her coming by the quarter pole and a rider started to do everything he could to cut her off and force her into the rail. She lit into him with her whip and hit him four or five times. Of course the stewards didn’t see the incident the same way she did and set her down for, I believe, two weeks.
“Helen and I disagreed with their decision, because we thought they had turned a blind eye to what the other rider was doing to her and her horse,” Beck continued. “She had to fight a turf war to gain the respect of other riders. Whenever we saw she was riding in a race we always wondered what they were going to try to do to her. She was also fighting for the rights of the horse she was riding, so it could run its best race. On September 4, 1985, she rode our two-year-old Pirate’s Marque to a four-length win and on March 19, 1995, she won the Big Apple Stakes at Yakima aboard Cromarty Bay for us. She would have won more races for us, if not for her hard-headed agent.”
In her first year of riding, Baze racked up 73 victories from 379 races in nine weeks to achieve top apprentice accolades. That September she became the first female rider since Jane Driggers in 1975 to capture a stakes race at the Renton oval, when she survived a double inquiry and guided two-year-old Kent Green to the first of his eight stakes triumphs in the Tukwila Stakes and ended the season fourth in the Longacres’ jockeys’ race.
The following year, Baze, who at the time was married to exercise rider Pepe Aragon, garnered national attention after becoming the first woman to ever win a riding title at Longacres with 179 total victories, second only to Gary Stevens’ tally of 232 in 1984.
That same year, People Magazine ran an article on Baze entitled “Vicky Aragon’s Career Is Off At A Gallop” and on February 23, 1987, Sports Illustrated ran a feature on Baze called “Battling For Her Place.”
“The exposure was so unexpected and so fast,” Baze said. “I think psychologically, when you are young, you have a lot of expectations on your shoulders, but as the years go by you don’t care as much. I think that attitude comes with age and lots of injuries later. It is just the natural progression of age.”
Baze finished fifth in the jockey standings at Longacres in 1987, but added a second title to her résumé in 1988 with a 39-115-114 record, riding 791 horses to the gate, as well as being honored with the Skelly (now Lindy) Award.
In the eight years Baze performed over the Renton surface, she was never worse than sixth in the jockey standings, and is fifth all-time in races won at Longacres (754).
During 1992 and 1993, Baze added two riding titles at Yakima Meadows with 99 and 125 winners. She rode 471 winners at the Central Washington Fairgrounds, with 30 stakes wins, and added 146 victories at Emerald Downs.
On April 1, 1999, the then 34-year-old decided to head down the aisle a second time when she married fellow Washington Racing Hall of Fame member and Longacres leading all-time rider Gary Baze in a small ceremony at Lake Wilderness State Park in Maple Valley.
Just two years later, she retired from race riding due to a slew of injuries, most notably a fusion of her neck in 1997, to become an agent for her husband and then worked as a horsemen’s liason officer at Emerald Downs in 2007 and 2008. The couple left the friendly confines of the Evergreen State in a motor home for Arizona in 2006 and settled into a condominium in Glendale.
“Gary talked me into being his agent in 2002 and 2003,” Baze reflected in a 2011 interview for her Hall of Fame induction. “We had a pretty good run working together, as he won about 12 stakes in 2003. Unfortunately, in mid-2002 he went down behind a horse that broke down and fractured his ankle, so he had to sit out the rest of that meet. He’s so tough, the gate crew remarked how his ankle was turned so bad in the opposite direction and all Gary did was hop over to the ambulance and never uttered a sound. He’s my hero.”
“I’m really fortunate that I don’t really do anything to keep in shape,” she explained. “It doesn’t take me very long [to get fit again], after I’ve stopped getting on horses for awhile, like maybe a week, because I’m so small. It’s like with the big heavy geldings – you have to kind of train on them – and then there are some really tiny fillies that you don’t have to train much at all, because they get fit so fast. It really just depends on metabolism.
“After time off I don’t really need to focus myself mentally,” Baze continued. “I just go back to riding. There is no rhyme or reason to it and in my mind the horse is doing all the work. They are the ones running. It’s not like you are a basketball or football player, because it’s not a 100 percent you. The trainer has done all the work with the horse, put him in a race where he will be competitive; then you put the rider on and just point and shoot. It’s easy. Believe me, I worked in the racing office at Emerald Downs for two years and that was hard!”
In 2009 the Bazes traveled to Winnipeg, specifically Assiniboa Downs, where Gary began riding, but due to regulations pertaining to the number of non-Canadian residents, Vicky was not allowed to jump into the saddle. She did return to the pari-mutuel ranks later that year, after Gary sustained another injury that relegated him to the sidelines.
Although she started late in the season, she still managed to bring home 39 winners and finish sixth in the jockey standings.
The following season, however, Vicky wrote a new chapter in the history books of Assiniboia Downs. After piloting Southern Alliance to victory in the seventh race on the last day of the meet, she became the only woman during the 52-years of that facility’s existence to win a riding title, but only by a scant neck.
On the last day of the meet, Baze was on top with 69 wins, Janine Stianson was in second with 67 and Larren Delorme in third with 66. Stianson failed to reach the wire first the entire day and Delorme picked up wins in the second and third races, but Baze’s wins in the fifth on Ecton’s Gem and in the previously mentioned seventh provided her with the hardware.
“Actually, I was hoping that we’d tie and all three would be standing here with this big old horse trophy,” Baze said in the winner’s circle that day. “I think it was really great to have everybody in the hunt the whole way.”
Without a doubt, she had accomplished more than many other female riders had ever dreamed of throughout her career, but to Baze this achievement held more meaning professionally than she initially revealed.
“When I left Seattle and I ended up in Canada through the twists and turns of the game, I never thought I’d be pushing 50 and be the leading rider at a racetrack,” she explained. “The kids were nipping at my heels the whole meet and I wanted to draw off, but it went down to the very last day when I was in a three-way tie with the 20-year-olds.”
Maybe one of the reasons Baze is able to continue to compete at such a high level is her attitude and a fondness for a certain dairy product.
“I am appreciative of riding, even on a day when I go home a loser,” she said. “Just recently I had a horse that I had a win and a second on and I really liked his chances, but he didn’t run a lick, so I went home a depressed loser. My husband was still in Tucson and when you are alone you can do anything you want, right? That’s when I had ice cream for dinner and the next day I won three races. You never know. This business is a rollercoaster and you just eat ice cream when you are bummed out – chocolate, of course.”
According to statistics from Equibase, Baze compiled a record of 63-60-77 and a bankroll of $573,738 from 460 trips to the post last year. This year she has a slate of 47-48-34 from 264 mounts and has earned $417,870.
As she vehemently stated last year, calling it quits does not seem to be an option for her.
“I know Gary doesn’t like me to say this, but I’m always surprised when I win a race,” Baze said. “I do remember the lean years and just appreciate the ups and downs of the game. Everybody has been there and they know. Also it’s important to keep a positive attitude. That’s pretty much how I feel about it.
“I’ll never throw a retirement party,” she continued. “It’s kind of like when I die, I hope I will just disappear and fade away and nobody knows I’m dead. It’s kind of like Elvis; he just left the building. It’s like there is no real proof of [my] death. There won’t even be a funeral for me. Everybody will just wonder, ‘what happened to her?’”
Kentucky resident Kimberly French is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Quarter Horse publications. She also freelances as a production assistant for ESPN’s horse racing broadcasts.
for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.