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Jockeys on every branch

June 30, 2005
by Jay Hovdey
Daily Racing Form

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When it comes to the endless debate over the relative influences of heredity and environment, horse racing offers plenty of fodder.

Don't look to the Baze clan, though, for a whole lot of help in tipping the scales toward either nurture or nature. As Russell Baze and his riding relatives can attest, they were all born into the business - some with jockeys for both a mother and father - and then raised under its prevailing influence, with the fine points of the craft passed down by honorable tradesmen in the family tree.

Russell, of course, is the flagship Baze, a Hall of Famer and a solid racing citizen whose legendary numbers transcend the fact that most of them have been achieved on the northern California circuit. In reaching 9,000 winners this week at age 46, he has placed himself in rarefied air, occupied only by Laffit Pincay. It will be only a matter of time and good health before Russell passes Pincay on the all-time winners list, and Baze has the benefit of both.

In the meantime, Russell's work can be appreciated on a national scale whenever he throws a leg over Lost in the Fog, the unbeaten 3-year-old thunderbolt trained by Greg Gilchrist. Lost in the Fog is scheduled to make his next start in the Riva Ridge Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard, which means - at least for the day - the entire racing world will be watching.

The active part of the Baze dynasty also includes 49-year-old Gary Baze, hard at work at Emerald Downs, as well as 22-year-old Tyler Baze, busy defending his 2004 title at Hollywood Park, and 18-year-old Michael Baze, who is part of a competitive Monmouth Park colony.

Besides the 9,000 winners logged by Russell, Gary comes in with 3,372, through the racing of June 2. Tyler, an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice, already has contributed 1,036 to the family total, while Michael, who started in May of 2003, stands at 200. Dale Baze, Russell's brother, added another 1,634 winners during his riding career.

To plot all the horse racing branches of the Baze family would require a much larger sheet of newsprint and more than a few hours of genealogical research. Picture the Kennedys, only with a stack of training and riding accomplishments next to their names.

Bert Baze, a farmer from Missouri who did his share of rodeo riding, got the ball rolling when he settled in the eastern Washington town of Sunnyside in the early 1900's. His sons Earl, Kenny, Joe, and Carl all became trainers, although Earl and Joe were also among Washington's top riders in their day.

Joe begat Dale and Russell Baze, while Carl accounted for five sons: Gary, Michael (a successful rider and father of the current Michael Baze), Earl (farrier, singer, and father of Tyler), Randy (an equine chiropractor), and Kelly, who, as family legend tells it, tried sneaking away to Oregon to get a jockey's license but was busted when an official called his folks. He ended up with a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy.

None of this, however, offers an obvious hereditary explanation for the Baze jockey gene, rivaled only by the Valenzuelas (Milo, Mario, Angel, and Patrick) in modern American racing. Vicky Baze, Gary's wife, offered her theory on the origins of the line.

"Carl's mother was a little 4-10 girl nicknamed Bunt" - properly named Mabel - "who married big, tall Bert," Vicky related this week from their home near Emerald Downs. "Bunt was a jockey, and she was pregnant with Carl when she went down in a spill at a county fair. That was her last ride, but I guess she was quite a horsewoman. It makes sense, too, because we always knew the female line was the strongest."

Vicky Baze should know. She is better known to racing fans as Vicky Aragon, one of the leading women riders of all time, with victories in 1,769 races. Over the past year, she has flirted with a return to riding, but now she seems determined to "quiet down," in her words, by applying her energies to her professional photography and souvenir horseshoe businesses.

"I was always wondering where my ability came from," Vicky said. "I seemed to be the only one in my family who had a knack for horses. My dad was a wild guy - he liked to do demolition derby and put his aggression into cars. But I knew of nobody like me on my mom's side until not long ago, when I asked my grandmother's sister. She told me about my grandma's father, who had a real way with horses."

Surrounded by accomplishments of his father, uncles, and cousins, young Mike Baze will never be at a loss to explain the source of his passion to ride. He has already sustained a serious accident, last December at Aqueduct, where he fractured his nose and severely displaced his septum, requiring three subsequent surgeries and four months of recuperation. Now he is determined to make his own name stand out in a world of Bazes.

"I love riding back here," Michael said from his Monmouth digs. "You get so many chances to ride. I'm really looking forward to Meadowlands opening, too, so I can start riding day and night."

Great-grandma Mabel would be proud.

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