"Tyler has always been around the animals. On our farm growing up, he was hopping on the cows, jumping on the pigs, jumping on the horses. He rode anything." These are the proud words of Earl Baze, father of Tyler Baze, one of the nation's leading apprentice jockeys.
In racing, pedigree is used to judge a horse before he has run. Whether he's a Storm Cat out of a champion mare or by a $1,000 sire out of a family pony, it's all figured into how he's perceived. Performance on the track, however, is an entirely different animal. Million-dollar blue-bloods can become worthless -- $1,000 blue-collar babies can become champions. It happens all the time.
Luckily for Tyler, his pedigree checked out. He came from a talented and well-respected racing family. His cousin, Russell, is the top jockey in Northern California, and an Eclipse Award winner, to boot. Uncle Gary was one of Washington's winningest riders. At one point even Tyler's father and mother were jockeys.
But just as with racehorses, jockeys have to step out of the shadow of their family trees and face the music. Tyler made that decision at age 15, when he was working as a groom and exercise rider for trainer, Mike Puhich. He wanted to be a jockey and was willing to make sacrifices.
At the time, he was home-schooling - a factor that allowed him to mold his education to his emerging profession. Puhich liked what he saw, and enlisted the help of his uncle, Ivan, to jumpstart Tyler's riding career. Ivan, a septuagenarian with a half century of jockey agent experience, gladly took Tyler under his wing.
Seasons came and went. On Halloween of 1999, he was 16. At beautiful Santa Anita Park, Tyler sat atop a Washington-bred maiden named Fleeting Wonder as they went through the post parade. He didn't know it at the time - but he was perched on his first career winner.
A few moments later, he was living his dream, driving down the stretch to a one-length victory in the 1-1/16 mile event. Riding in the big leagues was quite a thrill: going shoulder to shoulder with legends like Laffit Pincay, Kent Desormeaux, Chris McCarron and Gary Stevens. But riding and riding successfully are two different things, and Tyler needed some work.
As part of his training, he rode regularly at Turf Paradise (Arizona) and trained relentlessly on his Equicizer, a horse-like exercising machine designed for jockeys. Despite giving the Phoenix locals a two-month head start, he put together a solid meet, winning 103 races to finish third in the standings.
By age 17, he was riding regularly in Southern California, among the greats at Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. Despite doubts of Tyler's talent and size, Ivan Puhich pressed on and Tyler began to develop his own small niche.
At "old Del Mar," he wound up in fifth place, just five wins behind Kent Desormeaux, who placed second. He finished ninth with 13 wins at Hollywood (tied with Desormeaux and ahead of McCarron).
At the young Santa Anita meet, he currently sits in seventh place, with one win from eight mounts. To say Tyler's enjoying himself would be putting it lightly.
"It's a dream come true. I thought it would take 20 years [to get here]. This is awesome," said the exuberant young jockey.
As we inch closer to the 2000 Eclipse awards, there is no slowing of his frenetic pace. Riding seven days a week, Tyler remains a favorite for the Leading Apprentice award - but the competition is stiff. His chief rival, Norberto Arroyo, Jr. is leading the pack at Aqueduct, boasting more wins than Tyler.
Who's to say what the future holds. Tyler Baze may win the Eclipse - then again, he may not.
Either way, he's sure to be in good company. The challenges that lie ahead are testing, but Tyler has proven to be an eager student of the game. Only Kent Desormeaux, Chris McCarron and Steve Cauthen have won an Eclipse as [both] apprentices and journeymen. If Tyler maintains his upward path he may, in fact, be the fourth.