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Taking a Swing at the Big One

May 1, 2003
By Steve Anderson
Daily Racing Form

Tyler Baze was 5 years old in 1988, the first year he can recall the Kentucky Derby. Baze had a rooting interest. His uncle at the time, Gary Stevens, was aboard Winning Colors, who turned for home with the lead.

"I remember sitting in the front room hollering and screaming, 'Come on, Uncle Gary. Come on!' " Baze recalled.

Winning Colors won, and Baze knew more than ever what he wanted to be: a jockey. He accomplished that goal shortly after he turned 16 in 1999. Now, at the age of 20, Baze will have a chance to emulate Stevens when he rides in his first Kentucky Derby on Saturday aboard Indian Express.

The opportunity reflects Baze's growing status in Southern California, where retirements and injuries have led to a turnover in the standings. He was eighth with 41 winners from 350 mounts at this year's Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, 53 winners behind the runaway leader, Patrick Valenzuela.

This week, Baze has been anxiously awaiting his next ride aboard Indian Express, the Utah-bred colt owned by Phil Chess and trained by Bob Baffert. Baze has ridden Indian Express both times the colt has raced since he arrived from Panama, including a second-place finish at 35-1 in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, the colt's first route race.

Indian Express led or disputed the pace throughout the 1 1/8 miles, losing by a head to Buddy Gil, who was ridden by none other than Stevens.

"I knew he'd run well, but he surprised me the way he finished," Baze said. "I think he'll run all day long."

Baze is one of five rookies in this year's Derby field. He is joined by Tony Farina (who rides Brancusi), Rosemary Homeister Jr. (Supah Blitz), Terry Thompson (Sir Cherokee), and Cornelio Velasquez (Scrimshaw). Each will be trying to become the first rookie to win the Derby since Ron Franklin won with Spectacular Bid in 1979.

To prepare, Baze has had no shortage of experts to quiz. Last week, he called Hall of Fame jockeys Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron, who each won the Derby twice. Both have retired in the last year.

McCarron advised Baze on how to deal with his emotions, and Delahoussaye, the last rider to win consecutive runnings (1982-83), offered strategy hints.

"I asked Chris, 'Can you tell me any secrets about Churchill?' " Baze said. "Chris said not to think about too much. Just go with the flow.

"I had a nice long talk with Eddie Delahoussaye. He told me it's a long stretch. He said if you're on the lead, don't move too early."

There was not as much advice from Stevens. "He's one of the ones I have to beat," Stevens said with a quick laugh.

Baze was born in Seattle, the son of two jockeys - Earl and Cammie Baze. Russell Baze, a second cousin, is the perennial leader at Bay Area tracks and a member of racing's Hall of Fame. Stevens was once married to Toni Baze - the sister of Tyler Baze's father - but they have since divorced.

"I'm very proud of what he's accomplished," Stevens said of Baze. "I've seen a lot of improvement in the last eight or nine months. The thing I like is he continues to improve. He thinks there is something to learn each time.

"He's got a big chance with all the changes going on in Southern California. In six or seven years, he could be the heir apparent."

Baze was 16 when Ivan Puhich, a jockey agent, offered to help launch his career in Southern California. Now 77, Puhich, a former Marine, remembers sitting Baze down for a talk.

"Tyler, you're 16," Puhich recalled saying. "I'm about to steal something you'll never get back. You may become a great jockey, but I'm going to steal your youth."

Baze rode his first winner at the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita on Halloween in 1999 but spent most of that winter at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, where he rode 109 winners. He returned to Southern California in the spring of 2000 and put together a campaign that led to an Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding apprentice.

The winners kept coming. He finished second in the Santa Anita standings in 2000-01. In the winter of 2001-02, however, Baze's career hit a lull. At the time, he was battling mononucleosis, Puhich said.

"It took him a good three or four months to get over it," Puhich said.

Last fall, Baze's luck started to turn when he picked up mounts on stakes winners Avanzado and Crackup. Avanzado won the Forest Hills Handicap last October and finished second in the Golden Shaheen in Dubai in March. Baze has been getting better horses on a daily basis.

Behind the scenes, Baze has hired a personal trainer and works out at a facility partly owned by fellow jockey Victor Espinoza. The workouts are designed for strength, not muscle.

"I feel like a stronger rider," said Baze, who tacks 114 pounds but can do 111.

The extra work has not gone unnoticed by fellow riders and trainers.

Baffert gave Baze the call on Indian Express for the San Pedro Stakes at Santa Anita on March 22, the colt's first start since arriving from Panama. Indian Express finished fourth, beaten 2 3/4 lengths. Two weeks later Baffert started Indian Express in the Santa Anita Derby, and stuck with Baze.

"I could have jocked him off, but it's a big deal for him," Baffert said. "I can see the look in his eyes. When he came to ride the Santa Anita Derby, he was loose."

Baffert said he knows that Baze will be nervous and excited for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

"I'll tell him to enjoy it. Once they get in the gate, he'll be fine," Baffert said. "If he was on Empire Maker, he wouldn't be able to sleep. Even the experienced jockeys get shook up the night before."

Baze does not know what to expect, but is anxious for the moment to arrive.

"I don't know what I'll feel," he said. "This is everybody's dream."

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