Washington Racing Hall of Fame - Russell Baze

A champion among a legacy of great riders

by Grant Clark

No one gave much thought when Oregon Warrior crossed the wire first at Yakima Meadows on September 16, 1974. It marked the third victory of the year and ninth overall for the six-year-old Oregon-bred gelding. The horse actually had eight more career wins than his rider – a thin, baby-faced 16-year-old known around the track as Joe Baze’s kid.
    Joe was an exceptional jockey – winning riding titles at Longacres, Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields and guiding Pitch Out to a victory in the 1971 Longacres Mile – before becoming a trainer.
    It was Joe who gave his son, Russell Baze, a leg up on Oregon Warrior. Russell entered the race 0-for-12. The closest he had come to a victory occurred a couple weeks before, when he had finished third aboard an Appaloosa, his first mount at the Walla Walla fair meet. No one in attendance could have known they were watching history unfold.
     Oregon Warrior, a son of War Flirt and grandson of War Admiral, never achieved any type of monumental accomplishments on the track – he raced until the age of eight, winning 11 of 111 starts – but he will always be remembered as the first horse to carry Russell Baze into the winner’s circle.
    “I was tickled to death,” said Baze about the victory. “I made $250.”
    Baze has since made 9,009 additional trips to the winner’s circle, easily solidifying his place as one of racing’s all-time greats.
    On September 20, 2004, Baze became the fourth jockey to be inducted into the Washington Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, joining his cousin Gary Baze, Ralph Neves and Gary Stevens as the only riders to be inducted thus far.
    “The guy is just remarkable,” said EPSN’s Chris Lincoln, who hosted the 2004 Washington Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame induction dinner last September. “The numbers alone are mind-boggling. This guy is doing things no one else has come close to doing. Some people say it’s because he rides in northern California, but the truth is, no matter where you ride, you put up a fraction of the numbers he’s put up and you’re one of the best riders on the planet. I’ve seen Shoe and Laffit, Pat Day, Chris McCarron and his name definitely belongs up there with them. He’s that good.”

The Bazes – Washington Racing’s First Family
    Joe Baze was riding at Exhibition Park (Hastings Park) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada when Russell was born on August 7, 1958.
    Despite being born in the Great White North, Russell’s roots were firmly planted in Washington. His grandfather, Bert Baze, was a farmer and rodeo rider from Missouri who decided to relocate to Sunnyside – a town in central Washington about 40 minutes outside of Yakima – in the early 1900’s.
    Bert and his wife, Mabel – described as a 4’10” tough-as-nails former jockey nick-named “Bunt” – had eight children, including four sons who became trainers: Earl, Kenny, Joe and Carl.
    The Baze’s racing family tree begins with Mabel, who successfully rode horses for years in the Blue Mountain circuit in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
    “Back then they used whoever was light enough,” Russell said. “So she got to ride a lot of races. She was the one that really got the ball rolling for the family.”
    Legend has it that Mabel’s riding career ended only after suffering a spill at a county fair while pregnant with Carl.
    Mabel’s passion for the “Sport of Kings” was not lost on her children. Joe and Carl each begin their careers in the Thoroughbred industry as jockeys before turning to conditioning horses.
    “Uncle Joe was an incredible jockey,” said Gary Baze, a 2003 inductee into the Washington Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame who has won more than 3,300 races during his career. “We all picked his brain whenever we had the chance. I’ve been in this business for a while and I still find myself asking him questions.”
    In addition to Russell, two other of Joe and Beverly’s sons were successful riders. Dale helped to contribute to the Baze’s legacy as racing’s first family by winning 1,634 races during his career. Mike was the top rider at Longacres in 1978 and is the father of the current young reinsman Michael Baze. Two other sons also kept their connection to the race industry. Farrier and singer Earl is the father of the hot young rider Tyler Baze, the 2000 Eclipse Award winning apprentice jockey. Randy is an equine (and human) chiropractor. Another brother, Kelly, tried for a career in riding, but ended up with a career in the Navy instead.
    In 1976, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer named the Baze clan as their “sports family of the year.”
    Following a distinguished 20-year riding career, Joe Baze retired in the early 1970’s to open a training center in Granger, where Russell, his four brothers and sister grew up. Every day before school, Joe put his kids to work, riding ponies and cleaning stalls. At the age of 13, Russell began to take riding as a career seriously.
    Three years later, as soon as he was old enough, he took out his racing license and started his professional career, riding weekends and summers, receiving $17 for each mount.
    “It was exciting,” Russell said. “It was tough work, but I was having fun. It’s actually all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
    n addition to the victory aboard Oregon Warrior, Russell finished his first year of riding with one other win, capping 1974 with a record of 2-3-4 from 20 mounts with $1,846 in earnings. Today, it seems strange if he doesn’t win at least two on a card, but the groundwork was being laid for a successful career.

The Longacres Years
    Russell was an apprentice reinsman when he arrived at Longacres in 1975. Cousin Gary was the two-time defending riding champion, having claiming the title in 1973 with 120 wins and in 1974 with 112.
    The two Bazes battled throughout the 1975 season at the Renton racetrack, with Gary eventually winning his third consecutive title by winning 99 races. Russell finished second in the standings, posting a record of 72-51-50 from 444 mounts.
    In addition to being the leading apprentice at Longacres, the 1975 season also marked Russell’s first career mount in the Longacres Mile. As a 17-year-old bug boy he finished fifth aboard Cupatin.
    Russell rode two more full seasons at Longacres, but failed to equal the success he had during the 1975 meeting, finishing 1976 at Longacres with a record of 32-48-48 from 440 mounts and 1978 with a record of 28-43-23 from 272 mounts.
    Russell figured he would benefit from a change of scenery. Northern California turned out to be exactly what he was looking for.

Home in Northern California
    Remarkably, before Russell started riding full time in northern California in 1980, he had never won a riding title. Since then he’s more than made up for that, winning the riding championship at every major northern California meeting at which he has completed in the last 25 years. He owns 27 riding titles at Golden Gate Fields and 33 at Bay Meadows.
    His most recent title occurred during the 2005 meeting at Bay Meadows, where he finished with a 30.2 winning percentage and notched 119 victories – nearly doubling the records of second-place riders Frank Alvarado and Roberto Gonzalez, who each finished with 61 wins.
    “Shoemaker’s domination was the greatest until Russell’s here,” Darryl Hove, a longtime chart-caller in California, told the Daily Racing Form. “We’ve been racing in northern California for nearly 70 years, and Russell’s been the leading rider one-third of the time. I doubt anyone has ever come close to what Russell has done, and look at all the jockeys who came here with reputations and left because they were discouraged that they couldn’t beat Russell.
    “I’m not trying to take anything away from Shoe; he was the best I ever saw. Shoemaker won the majority of his races on the west coast. He won at Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Santa Anita as often as Russell has up here. Ironically, back then southern California was considered inferior to New York, and some people wondered if Shoemaker could win back there.”
    Baze, however, has never been about numbers and milestones.
    “I think the thing I’m most proud of in my career is that I’ve never been beaten for lack of trying,” Baze said. “I’m just blessed that I have an occupation that I love to do.”

Simply Majestic’s 1988 Longacres Mile
    Following Simply Majestic’s victorious romp in the 1988 Longacres Mile, Baze jokingly said, “I finally get to be included in the family roster.”
    By 1988, the Baze family had already registered five combined victories in the Longacres Mile. In addition to Joe Baze’s win aboard Pitch Out in the 1971 edition of the race, Gary Baze had already won four Miles - winning back-to-back runnings of the race in 1980 and 1981 with Trooper Seven to go with wins in 1985 on Chum Salmon and in 1987 on Judge Angelucci.
    Russell, however, wasn’t as fortunate as his father and cousin in terms of the Mile. Prior to 1988, Russell had ridden in five Longacres Miles. In those races he finished fifth twice, sixth and tenth. It had been three years since he last rode in the Mile. His last Mile mount occurred in 1985, the year his cousin Gary guided Chum Salmon to a victory. Russell didn’t even get to finish the race, as he was forced to pull up Distant Ryder.
    Russell’s Mile luck changed for the better in 1988. He was slated to ride Simply Majestic, a Bobby Frankel trainee who emerged as a serious Mile contender after defeating 1987 Mile winner Judge Angelucci by a gaudy 10 lengths in the Golden Gate Fields Budweiser Breeders’ Cup that April.
    Despite the impressive victory over the previous year’s winner, Simply Majestic went off as the second betting choice in the 1988 Mile. The favorite was the Aaron Spelling-owned Candi’s Gold, who was named after the television producer’s wife. Candi’s Gold was coming off a 1987 season where he ran in the Kentucky Derby-G1 and finished fourth to Ferdinand in the Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1. Candi’s Gold, under Eddie Delahoussaye, failed to fire that afternoon, finishing eighth in the nine-horse field.
    The race was all Simply Majestic’s, as Russell guided the colt to a 4 1/2 length victory over longshot Kent Green. His final time was 1:33 4/5 – which tied the track record.
    “This is the race everyone wants to win,” Baze said following the race. “It’s good to come back home and finally win it.”
    To date, Joe and Russell are the only father-and-son duo to each win the Longacres Mile. Russell’s success in the Mile, however, did not end there.

1992 – Baze Leads the Nation
    Following 1988, Russell decided to move his tack to southern California. He stayed for three injury-filled years – winning a combined 475 races with a win percentage of 11.9.
    After returning from a three-week layoff due to a broken pelvis, Russell, even though he posted more than $13 million in earnings over the three-year span, realized that things just weren’t working for him in southern California.
    “I could have stayed and done all right,” Russell said, “but back in northern California was where I needed to be.”
    Russell returned, better than ever, to the Bay Area in 1992. On April 16, 1992, he set a northern California record for most victories on a single card when he won with seven of his nine mounts at Golden Gate Fields. The wins just kept pouring in after that.
    Since 1992, Russell has led the nation in victories seven times – in 1992 (433 wins), 1993 (410), 1994 (415), 1995 (448), 1996 (415), 2000 (412) and 2002 (431) – and has won 400 races in 11 of the past 13 years, coming up short only in 1999 (with 373 wins) and 2004 (321) when he missed significant time due to injuries. No other jockey has won 400 races in a year more than three times.
    In 1995, Russell was honored with a special Eclipse Award for being the first jockey to win 400 or more races in a year for four consecutive years.
    Baze was the recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 2002. This honor is given by fellow riders to one whose career and personal character reflects positively on the sport and themselves.

Issac Murphy Award
    To truly judge Baze’s greatness on the track, all you need to do is look at the Isaac Murphy Award winners’ roster.
    In 1995, the National Turf Writers Association created the prestigious award, which is given to the rider with the nation’s highest win percentage. Between the award’s inception in 1995 through 2003, Baze was the only recipient.
    “If I knew Baze was going to win it every year, I would never have come up with the award to begin with,” Bill Nack, renowned author and National Turf Writers Association member, jokingly said during a visit to Emerald Downs in 2003. “I remember after presenting it to him for the fifth straight year I told him we’re either going to have to re-name the award after him or get rid of it all together. That’s just the clearest sign of how dominating a rider he is. When it’s all said and done, he might put the numbers so high up there that no one ever catches him.”
    Baze finished 1995 having won 29 percent of his races. During the following seven years he won at a 28 percent clip before winning 30 percent of his races in 2003.
    His remarkable run of nine straight Isaac Murphy Awards came to an end in 2004 when Ramon Dominguez claimed the top spot by winning 383 of his 1,353 mounts (28.3 percent). Baze was second in the nation, receiving nearly 200 less mounts then Dominguez and winning at a 27.2 rate.

Win No. 8,000
    With wife Tami, the daughter of horse trainer and former jockey Jack Arterburn who Russell met in 1978 and married the following year; daughters, Trinity, 25, Brandi, 23 and Cassie, 20; and son Gable, 14, watching, Russell, at age 44, became the youngest rider in history to reach the 8,000-win club on October 26, 2002.
     Russell notched the milestone after guiding Ourwhistlebritches, a two-year-old filly trained by William E. Morey, to a 2 1/2 length victory in a six furlong race at Bay Meadows.
    “When I get close (to milestones), I don’t get too anxious,” Russell said.
    That’s probably because Russell and milestones have gone hand-in-hand since he began riding three decades ago. He recorded his 3,000th career win at Hollywood Park on December 8, 1988 aboard Hagley’s Lion; his 4,000th on March 3, 1993 at Golden Gate Fields on Frank Musso; his 5,000th on July 29, 1995 at Santa Rosa aboard Cyrus Says; his 6,000th on December 4, 1997 at Golden Gate Fields on Clover Hunter; and reached the 7,000 win plateau on July 4, 2000 at Pleasanton aboard the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee, and aptly named, This is the Moment.

Sky Jack’s Record-breaking Mile
    Romp Russell ended a 10-year Longacres Mile hiatus in 1998 when he rode Budroyale, the richest earner to ever race in Washington. Budroyale turned out to be a Mile winner. Unfortunately for Russell, Budroyale’s Mile triumph was still a year away and he had to settle for a disappointing seventh-place finish on the Ted West trainee.
    The next year, Russell fared even worse in the Mile, finishing last in the eight-horse field on four-to-five favorite Classic Cat.
    Another eighth-place finish followed in 2002 aboard Futural, a former graded stakes winner who was a shell of his former greatness once the 2002 Mile rolled around.
    “I’m going to need to get a better horse if I’m ever going to win this race again,” Russell said with smile outside the Emerald Downs’ jockey room following his trip aboard Futural.
    A dozen months later, Russell got his request in the form of Sky Jack. Russell has won 9,010 races, but few are as memorable or dominating as his victory aboard the Doug O’ Neill-trained roan in the 2003 Longacres Mile.
    “I’ve been on some awfully good horses,” said Russell, who has won approximately 500 stakes races during his career. “This was as good as a performance from a horse as I’ve ever been on.”
    Sky Jack, who also won the Hollywood Gold Cup-G1 in 2002, covered the eight panels in a Mile record time of one minute, 33 seconds. His winning time set an Emerald Downs’ track record and matched the state record set by Slew of Damascus in 1993 at Yakima Meadows.
    In addition, Sky Jack’s winning margin of 6 1/4 lengths bettered the previous Longacres Mile record of six lengths set by Chinook Pass (1983), Quality Quest (1955) and Amble In (1946).
    “It will definitely go down as one of my most memorable wins,” Russell said.

Back-to-Back Miles
    While Russell guided Sky Jack to a wire-to-wire victory in the 2003 Longacres Mile, the following year’s running of the Mile was the exact opposite.
    In the 2004 edition of the Mile, Russell showed his versatility, rallying the Hollendorfer-trained Adreamisborn from last place in a field of 12 to win the 2004 edition over a sloppy track.
    “You’re always a little bit more confident going into a race when you have Russell riding your horse,” said Hollendorfer, who was saddling his first Mile winner. “I’m not sure how many races we’ve won together; one of these days I’m going to have to sit down and count them, but we’ve had a lot of success.”
    Adreamisborn may have given Hollendorfer his first Mile win, but it marked the third victory in the race for Russell, placing him second on the all-time Mile wins lists. Cousin Gary Baze holds the record with five. It also made Russell the first jockey in 38 years to win the race with two different horses in back-to-back years.
    Bobby Jennings was the only other rider to accomplish the feat. Jennings won back-to-back Miles with a pair of Argentine-bred runners, in 1965 with *Siempre and the following year he was aboard *Aurelius II.
    “It always means a lot to come up here and win this race,” Russell said. “I’ve had some tough Miles, but lately things have been going my way in this race.”

Surpassing Shoe
    On January 22, Russell’s résumé got a little bit larger when he won aboard Hollow Memories at Golden Gate Fields to surpass the great Bill Shoemaker and move into second on racing’s all-time victory list with 8,834.
     “Any time you can have your name spoken in the same breath as Bill Shoemaker, you’re doing something right,” Russell said afterwards. “He was my idol. He’s the idol of every jock. He set the standard to match. He’s been the target we’ve all aimed for. There’s nothing I can say about him that hasn’t been said. Everybody knows his genius as a rider. I don’t get sentimental or conceited, but it is a special moment.”

Joining the Pirate
    Russell inched closer to the title of winningest jockey of all-time on June 2 when he became just the second rider in history to reach the 9,000 career mark at Golden Gate. On that date, he guided Queen of the Hunt to a wire-to-wire victory in the card’s finale. Only the retired Laffit Pincay, Jr., fondly known at “The Pirate,” has won more races
    “I’ve never been the kind of person to say I’m going to win a certain number,” Russell said following the victory. “I’ve just been real lucky. I’m just happy to have the success I’ve had. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else – I’ve just been lucky to ride faster horses.”
    Fittingly, No. 9,000 came aboard a horse trained by Hollendorfer, who through June 21 ranks fifth on the trainers all time wins list with 4,380 victories.
    “Jerry’s been good to me, putting me on his good horses,” Russell said. “There’s nobody I’d rather do it for.”
    After the race, Russell and Hollendorfer estimated they have combined to win approximately 2,000 races since first teaming up in the early 1980’s.
    “We’ve worked well together,” Hollendorfer said. “Everybody in racing knows what it means to win 9,000 races. I was happy to stand there with him. It made my day.”

    Eight days after his 9,000th win, Russell suffered a complete fracture of his collarbone near his left shoulder, possible rib fractures and numerous bruises from his hips to forehead, according to Golden Gate Fields physician Dr. David Seftel. The injury occurred when his mount, Cowboy Badgett, broke his left front ankle nearing the quarter pole. “The horse went down and planted me like a tulip,” deadpanned Baze. He is expected to sidelined for up to two months according to Seftel.
    It is the second fractured collarbone in 18 months for Russell, who broke his right collarbone on November 30, 2003. He missed eight weeks of action with that injury.
    At the time of the accident, June 6, Russell led the nation with 205 wins and was 72 clear of his nearest rival, Rafael Bejarano, and only 520 victories stood between him and Laffit Pincay, Jr. on the all time wins list.
    Among those 2005 victories were four aboard the unbeaten three-year-old sprinter Lost in the Fog. In fact, prior to getting injured, Baze was the only rider aboard Harry Aleo’s unbeaten colt in his first six starts. (Edgar Prado got him home first in the June 11 Riva Ridge Breeders’ Cup Stakes-G2 at Belmont Park.) As is often the case in his profession, the most talented riders usually name a more recent mount as the best. “No doubt, Lost in the Fog is the fastest horse I’ve ever ridden,” said Baze, using tone for emphasis.
    Despite being sidelined with the injury, his focus remains on 9,531.
    “Catching Laffit is obviously the next goal,” said the 46-year-old jockey. “If we can do that, then I’d like to go for 10,000 (wins).”

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