The nation's winningest thoroughbred jockey appears to be the
classic big fish in a small pond, but when the pond is San
Francisco Bay, who can blame Russell Baze for being content?
Barring an injury, the 38-year-old Baze is on pace to become the
first jockey to lead the nation in victories--and to win at
least 400 races--for five consecutive years. Yet only the most
serious racing fan might list him as one of the nation's top
riders, or even know who he is. The reason is that Baze works
almost exclusively at the midlevel tracks of Northern
California: Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows. He even works
the summer-fair circuit. "You stay up there," says D. Wayne
Lukas, the nation's most prominent trainer, "and you might as
well be in Russia."
Baze is one of only 15 jockeys who have won at least 5,000
races, but it wasn't until this year that he made his debut in
the Kentucky Derby, considered by most jockeys to be the sport's
most prestigious race. He finished 14th aboard the long-shot
Semoran, and then he quietly returned to the Bay Area. He didn't
ride in either the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes, the other
two legs of the Triple Crown.
Except for a bittersweet stint on the high-powered Southern
California circuit from 1988 to '91, Baze has stayed in the San
Francisco area, and he seems serenely unconcerned that he is not
accorded the same credit as Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron and Pat
Day. "I like winning races," Baze said one afternoon in the
jockeys' room at Golden Gate Fields, "but I can do without the
fame and the glory. It's hard to leave a place when you've done
as well as I've done around here."
In an era when virtually every athlete in every sport craves
superstardom and the huge rewards it brings, Baze's attitude is
both refreshing and puzzling. Lukas, for one, believes that if
Baze wanted to, he could hold his own against the big-name
riders who dominate the major races in New York, Southern
California, Kentucky and Florida. "He's a good, solid rider,"
Lukas says. "He's very low-key and modest. Got a good head on
his shoulders. I like him a lot." Yet Lukas rarely has an
opportunity to use Baze, because Lukas seeks the national
spotlight as much as Baze shuns it.
Within his small pond, the 5'4", 113-pound Baze is regarded as
considerably more than a big fish. Rival jockeys regard him with
a deference that borders on awe. Earlier this year Baze was
horrified when apprentice rider Jose Valdivia Jr. called him
"Mr. Baze." Says trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, "Everybody has a
tremendous amount of respect for Russell, which is unusual for a
guy who has won so much."
One rival who didn't treat Baze like an icon was Ron Hansen, the
star-crossed rider who disappeared after cracking up his car on
the San Mateo Bridge on Oct. 1, 1993 and is presumed dead (SI,
Oct. 25, 1993). In raw talent Hansen was Baze's equal. But in
lifestyles they were as different as Dennis Rodman and David
Robinson. Hansen was the classic playboy, a guy who operated in
the fast lane both on and off the track. Baze is so vanilla that
his idea of a good time, he says, is driving his "big ol' fat
Ford truck" and puttering around his house in Woodside, near
Palo Alto, "running the lawn mower or fixing stuff." He's
devoted to his wife, Tami, whose father was a trainer, and their
four children: Trinity, 16; Brandi, 14; Cassie, 11; and Gable,
6. Russell also loves to read Reader's Digest condensed books,
because "they've each got four stories, and they cut out a lot
of the baloney."
Yet there's another side to Baze, one that Hansen shared. Baze
is intensely competitive and hates to lose. The publicity folks
at both Golden Gate and Bay Meadows have learned to give him
plenty of space after tough losses. But Hansen would needle
Baze. "What happened to the superstar?" Hansen would say,
laughing. Baze would seethe, but he respected Hansen so much
that he would never lose his temper.
"I like to tease Russell, too, if he doesn't win," says
Hollendorfer, one of the leading trainers on the Northern
California circuit. "But I don't get to do that too often. He's
pretty intense when he's riding. I have enough confidence in
Russell to take him anywhere in the country."
Baze was to the saddle born. In the 1920s his maternal
grandmother, Mabel (Bunt) James, and her father, Bert James,
traveled around the Pacific Northwest looking for racing action.
In each town they sought out the hottest rider and horse, and
bet that the teenage Bunt could beat him on her pony, Maude. As
family legend has it, Bunt won a lot more than she lost. She
eventually rode professionally, until she was 30. She retired
only after taking a spill when she was pregnant.
Bunt's sons, Earl and Joe, who is Russell's father, later picked
up the reins. Earl rode for six years, and in 1949 Joe began his
20-year career, winning riding titles at, among others,
Longacres in Seattle and Golden Gate Fields. Joe's cousin, Basil
James, was the nation's leading rider in 1936. Russell's younger
brother, Dale, has had a modestly successful riding career, and
their cousins Gary and Mike Baze were among the leading riders
at Long-acres in the '70s and '80s. But Russell has surpassed
them all. Last year he won a special Eclipse award, as the first
rider to win 400 races four years in a row; and he won the first
Isaac Murphy Award, for leading the nation in victory percentage.
"It's been a pretty good run," says Baze. "I've had more success
than 90 percent of the jockeys who are out there now. Since 1980
I've been the one to beat around here, but it's not like I can
go anywhere and be recognized. I'm pretty anonymous outside the
racetrack. My kids get a kick when somebody will come up in a
shopping mall or someplace and say, 'Aren't you Russell Baze?'
The kids say, 'Dad, are you famous?' But that's not important to
me. Just to be the leading rider in the nation and have the
number of wins that I have--it's a small claim to fame, but it's
Baze's first career victory came aboard Oregon Warrior on Sept.
16, 1974, at Yakima Meadows (Wash.) Racetrack. In 1981 he won
his first riding title at Bay Meadows. On Sept. 1 and 2, 1984,
he won eight consecutive races over two days--six at Bay Meadow
and his first two races at the California State Fair at
Inevitably, fame beckoned--or maybe just curiosity got the best
of Baze. In 1988, with eight consecutive Bay Meadows and Golden
Gate riding titles to his credit, he moved to Southern
California to see how he would measure up against the big names
(McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye and others) at
Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar.
Baze's results were mixed. He won his share of top races,
including the 1988 Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap, aboard
Simply Majestic; the 1989 Oak Tree Invitational, aboard
Hawkster; and the 1990 Oak Leaf, on the standout filly Light
Lite. But after riding 270 winners in 1988, Baze broke his
pelvis in early 1989. He was laid up for several weeks, and when
he returned he couldn't regain his clout with the leading stables.
"The last six or seven months, I wasn't riding the kind of stock
I wanted to," he says. "I figured there was no sense in hanging
around. I didn't do as well as I wanted, but I wouldn't say I
So back he went to the Bay Area, where he began his remarkable
victory skein: 433 in 1992, 410 in 1993, 415 in 1994, 448 last
year and 270 so far this year. Since returning north, he has
averaged $500,000 in earnings. Baze's own favorite day was April
16, 1992, at Golden Gate, when he rode seven winners to break
the track record shared by Hansen, Bill Shoemaker, A.L. Diaz and
Don't get the wrong idea about Russell Baze. If the right horse
came along, he would love to shoot for the Triple Crown or the
Breeders' Cup. But even if he never wins a major classic, he
won't feel that his career is incomplete. He has made his
choices, and he's at peace with them.
"I can't believe how blessed I've been," he says. "My favorite
thing is to go home and be with the kids. My wife and I like to
show cattle. My daughters are into barrel racing. When we lived
in Foster City, I was a Cub Scout master. That was fun. I just
wished I didn't have such a limited amount of time for it."
And so it goes. When Baze notched his 5,000th career victory, on
July 29, 1995, it was at the Sonoma County Fair, aboard a
4-year-old gelded claimer. The crowd was estimated at 8,000, but
Baze felt just as happy as if the milestone had been achieved at
Santa Anita before 50,000.