Washington Racing Hall of Fame - Gary Baze

The consumate professional

by Kate Barton

Just like Mt. Rainier, whose regal presence has stood in the backdrop of both Longacres and Emerald Downs, Gary Baze has been a solid, reliable and often spectacular part of the Washington racing scene for more than 30 years.
    The winningest rider in state history, Baze was an obvious choice to become one of the inaugural jockeys voted into the Washington Thoroughbred Hall of Fame. Not only because he’s won more than 3,200 races, including 200 stakes and purses totaling over $25 million. Or because he captured a record five Longacres Miles and was the regular pilot for Hall of Fame stars Trooper Seven and Captain Condo. Nor was it solely due to the numerous honors he has earned locally and nationally. As much as anything, Baze is respected throughout the industry for his honesty, courtesy, sportsmanship and work ethic.
    Daily Racing Form columnist Dennis Dodge offers high praise.
    “Gary is the consummate professional, with horsemen, colleagues, the fans and the press. He’s always had a knack for getting up for the big race, and is always at his best when the money’s on the line. He’s always been an exceptional judge of pace and a strong finisher.”
    Ironically, Baze can’t even remember the fist time he got up on a horse.
    “I’m sure it was before I could even retain memories,” he laughs. “I have pictures of my folks lifting me up on horses as a baby, but I don’t really remember it.”
    A scion of one of the first families of Washington racing, Baze does remember a childhood surrounded by horses and horsemen. His father Carl was a long-time Washington trainer, as were his uncles Kenny and Earl. Uncle Joe Baze was a top rider in Washington and northern California and earned the nickname “Sunday Joe” for his numerous stakes wins at Longacres during the 1960s.
    Carl and his wife Alice owned and worked a 40-acre farm in Sunnyside, the small community near Yakima where Baze was born.
    The pastures were filled with alfalfa, hay, horses and kids. Baze, who will turn 49 on October 25, is the oldest of six siblings, most of who have been involved in racing for all or part of their lives. Carl used the farm’s 3/8ths of a mile training track to prep horses for campaigns at Yakima Meadows, Playfair and Longacres. He also fit in the time to teach Gary and his other kids to ride.
    “My dad would put horses on a gyp ring. That’s how I started learning. I was probably nine-years-old the first time I exercised a racehorse.”
    Dreams about becoming a jockey weren’t part of those early riding lessons, however.
    “We always thought I’d be too heavy to ride,” he admits.
    But at age 16 he approached his father with a proposition.
    “I’d stayed small enough. I told my dad I wanted to at least try riding before I got too heavy. I promised I’d work to keep my weight down, and he said okay.”
    Baze started his apprenticeship at Spokane’s Playfair racetrack in 1972, weighing in at 109 pounds. His uncle Kenny gave him the riding assignment on his maiden breaker Prince Magic.
    When he didn’t have a mount, Baze would go out to the starting gate at Playfair and watch Jerry Taketa, the track’s leading rider at the time. “I learned a lot from Jerry,” said Baze. “He and my uncle Earl helped me learn the basics of horsemanship.”
    Talent, confidence and discipline made it easy for him to make the move from eastern to western Washington. While still an apprentice, he took the 1973 Longacres’ riding title with 120 wins, the most ever for a bug boy at that time. He followed that with crowns in 1974 (117) and 1975 (99), making him the first rider in Longacres’ history to win the championship three years in a row. When the Renton oval was dark, Baze campaigned in northern California, capturing one title at Golden Gate Fields and finishing high school at San Mateo High School while riding at Bay Meadows.
    After firmly establishing himself on the west coast he spent one year riding on the Chicago circuit at Arlington Park, Hawthorne and Sportsman’s Park. He took his tack as far as Atlantic City one summer, before returning to Longacres.
    During the 1970s and 80s, railbirds regarded Baze as the “Shoemaker of the northwest. “The winning ways of Gary Baze” was a phrase frequently bantered throughout the grandstand and in the mutuel lines.
    By the time Longacres closed in 1992, Baze owned a record six jockey champion- ships. (1980 – 102 victories; 1982 – a then record 154; and 1985 – 150.) He also finished in the top five in the riding standings 12 different seasons.
    Included in his record 100 Longacres stakes wins, were four Longacres Mile victories, another unequalled feat for a jockey. He pushed that mark to five with his victory aboard Adventuresome Love at the Emerald/Yakima 1993 meeting.
    “I guess I’d have to count the Mile victories as the highlights of my career,” he says with characteristic modesty.
    The richest one mile race in the country during Longacres’ golden years, the Mile traditionally attracted highweighted shippers and top jockeys from California. When Baze tallied his initial triumph with Eugene Zeren’s home-bred Trooper Seven in 1980, it was the first time in nine years that the trophy had stayed in Washington.
    In 1981, California invaders ridden by Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Jr. and Sandy Hawley challenged Baze and the defending champ. But the hometown favorites were determined to secure a place in history. Their length triumph was the first ever back-to-back Mile win. The day remains unchallenged as the most exciting afternoon in the track’s history. A crowd of 25,031 was on hand, second only to the 26,095 who bid farewell to Longacres when the track closed 21 years later.
    “It was electrifying. The crowd, the horses, everything. I’ll never forget it.”
    Baze’s special talent for bringing a horse from off the pace was evident when he coached Chum Salmon home in the 1985 Mile. After trailing the nine-horse field by more than 15 lengths, Baze calmly moved the eight-to-one outsider into high gear at the half-mile pole. Chum Salmon continued his startling, powerful move until the wire, where he was a half-length in front of Dear Rick and favored M. Double M.
    “Chum was certainly one of the most exciting horses I was ever on,” said Baze.
    Seattle Post-Intellingencer handicapper Al Smallman describes the ride on Chum Salmon as quintessential Gary Baze.
    “If he gets on a horse that comes from behind, one that you can ‘slingshot’ like that, he can do it better than anyone else on the track,” said Smallman.
    His versatility was apparent two years later when Baze won with the front-running Judge Angelucci for Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham.
    “He just basically went to the front and stayed there,” said Baze, who frequently got riding calls from Whittingham. Later that fall, Baze and Judge Angelucci went wire-to-wire in the $300,000-added Californian Stakes-G1 at Hollywood Park. Preakness Stakes-G1 winner Snow Chief finished third, and the victory stands as the richest of Baze’s career.
    Along with the fame and riches, there were naturally less glamorous and more grueling chapters in his career. He has dealt with a relentless and sometimes exhausting battle to make weight, as well as the ever-present threat – and all too often reality – of injuries that challenge all riders.
    At 5’ 6” tall, he still can tack 118 pounds. But even in his early 20s, he was pushing 116 with very little indulgence. The sweat box and a 500 calorie a day diet during the racing season have been familiar, if not constant, companions.
    As for injuries, Baze’s count of broken bones is 22 to date, the worst being a compound fracture of his lower right leg near the beginning of the 1992 Longacres meeting. Baze was battling for the lead aboard That Cardwell Look when the horse shattered a leg and threw him to the ground. His leg was momentarily pinned against a rail support, which caused the compound fracture. It took two surgeries to repair the damage.
    “That was undoubtedly the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through, and it took me the longest to recover from. I was off six months after that injury.”
    The most frightening occurred in a two-horse spill over a frozen track at Portland Meadows in 1985, when he suffered a severed artery from one of his kidneys.
    “That was probably my most serious, life-threatening injury. I lost a lot of blood. But they were able to patch me up from that one too.” Indeed, he was back riding at Longacres later that spring.
    In his mind, his overall fitness has helped Baze return from what could have been career-ending spills.
    “Every time I’ve been injured, I was totally fit, and I recuperated fairly fast,” he explains. “Knock on wood, but I’ve never come across the injury that would make me think about quitting.”
    In fact, he did quit once in earnest. In 1996 he traded his racing silks for a suit and tie to become the western regional manager for The Jockeys’ Guild, a position he held through 1999.
    “I had been thinking about quitting,” he admits. “When that job opened up, I knew it would only be available once. I thought it looked like something I could do if I was going to retire.”
    The job was “a complete college education in a different direction.” For four years he did everything from represent riders at commission meetings to testify in front of state legislatures for better safety standards, such as the installation of mandatory safety rails and helmet laws for riders.
    “I enjoyed the job, and I feel like we accomplished some good things. Portland Meadows put in a safety rail, and a lot of other tracks are trying to get them approved.
    “But I didn’t enjoy the traveling. And in the end, I just missed riding too much.”
    In order to get back in shape, Baze dropped 30 pounds (“I did it slow, by eating mostly salads.”) and logged in lots of time on an Equisizer, the exercise machine that simulates riding a horse. Jockeys commonly use it to regain strength after a long layoff.
    His comeback began on opening day of the 2000 Emerald meeting with a win aboard Obeah Man in the eighth race. It was the first of 80, including five stakes, which put him fourth in the final standings.
    He finished second overall in earnings in 2003, after leading all riders in stakes wins with nine, including five with horse of the meeting Youcan’ttakeme. In the fall of 2003 he was recognized nationally as one of five nominees for the George Woolf Memorial Award, a prestigious national honor that is given every year at Santa Anita.
    At Emerald Downs he was voted the 2000 recipient of the “Lindy,” which honors a jockey for outstanding contributions to the racing industry, as well as the community. He had won on two previous occasions at Longacres, when it was known as the “Skelly.”
    Having just completed his fifth Emerald meeting – which included a four-win afternoon on Labor Day – Baze will spend the off season in Phoenix with wife Vicky, a respected and accomplished jockey who won the Longacres’ riding titles in 1986 and 1988. His parents, along with his sister and other family members, live in the area. To stay fit for the 2005 Emerald session, he plans to gallop horses at Turf Paradise.
    If outward demeanor is any indication, Baze has arrived at a place of balance and peace.
    “I’m happy with my career,” he reflects.
    “Everybody has crossroads in their life where they wish they would have done something different, or gone somewhere else, but I’m happy with what I’ve done. From the time that I was a kid, I just wanted to do the best I could for the job I had to do that day.”
    After Baze won the 1974 riding crown at Longacres, John Fletcher wrote these words in The Washington Horse:
    “Gary is not only a fine jockey, but is modest, unassuming, hardworking and industrious as well. We can all be proud of him, as he is a real credit to racing.”
    Like Mt. Rainier, some things just don’t change.

What Baze Says About His Equine Hall of Fame Colleagues

Trooper Seven . . . “I guess if I had to pick my all time favorite horse, it would be Trooper. He was like a Cadillac. He was just push button. He’d do whatever you wanted him to do. He didn’t need too many cues. He just automatically knew what to do.”

Captain Condo . . . “Condo was an absolute rogue. He didn’t want to run, he didn’t want to win. He used to savage other horses. In one word, he was rotten. You had to treat him and ride him like a stepchild. But you couldn’t keep using your whip because he would get mad and sulk. You had to think of other things to do, like bounce around on his back, flop a rein on him, act like you were falling off. Do anything to keep his mind on racing. He had such raw talent and natural ability. Vaden (trainer Ashby) knew exactly what to do to get him psyched enough to win.”

Click here for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.

WASHINGTON THOROUGHBRED, October 2004, page 794

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