Racing: Baze grinds into history as world's 'winningest' rider

Chris McGrath on the jockey whose grit has brought record reward
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The Independent Online

A passing illusion, no doubt - but this week, at least, it seems as though the meek will inherit the Turf. As often as not, sporting greatness is achieved with the hazardous, double-edged instincts between creation and destruction. In the most prolific jockey of all time, however, the dreary ratio of nine parts perspiration and one part inspiration has found its paragon.

Russell Baze has just become the most immortal nobody in racing history. Five days ago he rode the 9,531st winner of his career, passing the record of Laffit Pincay Jnr, who in his time supplanted Bill Shoemaker himself as what the Americans call the "winningest".

But whereas Pincay and The Shoe plied their trade in the grand arenas, Baze has been the big fish in the Californian ponds of Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields. He has had just two rides in the Kentucky Derby, three at the Breeders' Cup. In 32 years he has ridden one champion: the sprinting ace of 2005, Lost In The Fog.

And during the current statistical orgy Baze has been reflecting on all this honest, plain endeavour with corresponding humility. "When you think that in the record books it's going to be my name at the top of the list, it's very gratifying," he said. "It's kind of hard for me to believe it's me doing it."

Yet it is not as if quantity and quality can be entirely divorced. Baze, 48, may have won a lot of bad races, but he has won them on bad horses - and if that is any different from winning better races on better horses, then that is probably because it is harder. As he says himself: "Good horses are easier to ride, generally, than cheap ones."

And, however parochial his career, his miraculous consistency can only be sustained by global ambition. Since riding his first winner in 1976 - in the backwater of Yakima Meadows, Washington, on a horse trained by his father - Baze has broken his pelvis, ribs and collarbones. He has broken bones in his back, neck and hand and cracked his wrist. Yet he has hoarded 400 races 11 times in the past 14 years. No other jockey has ridden over 400 winners more than three times.

Since its inauguration in 1995, moreover, he has been beaten only once to the Isaac Murphy Award, for the rider who scores the highest percentage of winners to mounts. And the ultimate seal came four years ago with the George Woolf Award - chosen from among their number by the jockeys themselves, for career and character that reflect most honourably on their calling.

If the name Baze is now indelible in racing, then it is purely reciprocal. His genes are saturated with the sport. His grandmother, as fierce as she was tiny, was riding winners 100 years ago on the Blue Mountain circuit of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. She quit only after taking a fall, when pregnant, at a county fair. Of her eight children, four became trainers - including Russell's father, Joe, himself 20 years a jockey. Between brothers and cousins, Russell is one of eight Baze jockeys.

But now he stands unique among horsemen everywhere, and has no intention of quitting yet. He still loves trying to keep two steps ahead in the race, thinking coolly through its hectic dangers. "If fear is in the forefront of your thinking, you better not go out there because, for starters, you're going to be very ineffective," he said. "You're going to be dangerous because you're going to make mistakes out of fear. It's not a place for the weak of heart."

And that is what Baze is all about: heart. Others in a golden generation of American riders - now waning with the retirement, among others, of Pincay, Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens - gleamed in everything they did, for good or ill. Some had lurid problems with drugs or drink, spells in prison. Baze is their long-standing foil. It shows in his choice of favourite mounts, which are not the fastest, but the bravest: like the horse that was too sore to train except by swimming, but still won him six races. That, he says, is what he cherishes most: "that heart, that grit."