INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Tyler Baze was doing just fine until people started telling him he had a chance to win the Eclipse Award as North America's top apprentice of the year 2000.
That was mean. The kid is only 18 and still impressionable.
As everyone knows - at least those who pay attention to history - California-based apprentices do not win Eclipse Awards. They may as well run up big numbers on the Malaysian circuit, or sub-Saharan Africa, for all the good it does.
An exaggeration? Not hardly. Since they began giving out Eclipse Awards in 1971, a total of 30 apprentice riders have been honored. Of those, there has been exactly one who plied his trade exclusively in California. That was Steve Valdez in 1973.
In a fair process, this makes no statistical sense. But there's the catch.
The process is not fair. The Eclipse Awards electorate is heavily weighted to the east of the Mississippi River. Voters naturally lean toward names they know in their own backyard. And while the top horses, trainers, and journeymen jocks criss-cross the country in search of riches, exposing their credentials far and wide, apprentice riders rarely stray from home. As a result, those who have a successful bug year in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, or Toronto have a built-in advantage over their Western counterparts.
Even the most deserving West Coast bugs get squashed. In 1986, Corey Black of the West led Allen Stacy of the East in purses, while Stacy led in winners. Stacy got the trophy. In 1987, Kent Desormeaux of the East led Aaron Gryder of the West in winners, but trailed in purses. Desormeaux got the prize. In 1989, Corey Nakatani of the West beat Mike Luzzi of the East in purse money. Luzzi led in winners and won the Eclipse.
Based on that small sample, Tyler Baze might think he has a shot. Even though he trails in purse money, he is well clear of New York-based Norberto Arroyo in number of winners, and winners seem to be what Eclipse Award voters are looking for in an apprentice. Unfortunately, it appears to be a geographical prejudice that sways the vote. Baze does not have a fair chance for the simple reason that he wakes up each day on the wrong side of the country. And that's a shame, because Baze has everything you want to see in an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice.
He has accumulated his numbers (check them out at drf.com) by riding for most of the year against Hall of Famers Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Gary Stevens, not to mention Alex Solis, Victor Espinoza, David Flores, Garrett Gomez, Desormeaux, and Nakatani.
Baze won the Fairplex Park riding title going head-to-head against reigning champion Martin Pedroza. For the last two months, he has been working a seven-day week, riding Wednesday through Sunday at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, then hopping a Southwest shuttle to Phoenix each Sunday night to ride on Monday and Tuesday.
"I think they're starting to know me a little," Baze said on a recent afternoon at Hollywood. "The other night the pilot said he recognized my cowboy hat."
Everyone in the game recognizes the name - at least the Baze part. Tyler descends from the Northwest family that grows fine riders like McIntosh apples. Great-uncle Joe Baze led his first Longacres meet at age 16 in 1950. Tyler's second cousin is Russell Baze, inducted last year into the Hall of Fame. Uncle Gary Baze is the all-time leading rider of the Northwest.
Stevens is Tyler's other "Uncle Gary," by marriage. His best pal is Stevens' son, T.C. His other best friend - the five-pound apprentice allowance - Baze loses next week. If he is worried, he is hiding it well.
"I've accomplished just about everything I'd hoped to this year," Baze said. "My goal was to win 250 races. I'm pretty close. I wanted to win a stake. I won three. I wanted to ride here and be competitive with guys like Laffit Pincay."
Baze's most ardent backers include trainers John Sadler and Mel Stute and such colleagues as Delahoussaye and McCarron.
"For him to do what he's done against these older riders, nobody's done that here for a long time," Sadler said. "I won't hesitate to put him on anything."
The big man in Baze's corner is veteran agent Ivan Puhich, father of trainer Mike Puhich.
"Before he had his first ride, I had him work four- or five-hundred horses," Ivan Puhich said. "He went out of the gate with a jock's saddle 40 or 50 times, and worked maybe 100 horses in boots before he rode." Both Baze and Puhich know an Eclipse Award would be nice. But they also realize it won't mean a thing come this time next year, when Baze is deep into the cold world of journeymen. Their sights are on the horizon.
"I've tried to teach him to be a leader in the jock's room - not now, but 10 years from now," Puhich said. "I told him to pattern himself after guys like Pincay and Stevens, people who give something back to this business. I've tried to teach him to be proud to be a jockey, and to consider it a privilege."