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Genetic truth: He was born to ride horses

July 22, 2004
by Tim Sullivan
San Diego Union Tribune

DEL MAR Tyler Baze's first riding lesson took place in the palm of his father's hand.

It was there that he began to learn about balance, a fundamental tool of the jockey's trade. His feet were so small and his father was so strong that the boy could still stand on his old man's hand when he was 5 or 6 years old.

"I think he got bred into it," Earl Baze said of his son. "He's got the 'It.' You know when you throw the piece of paper and you just know it's going into the basket? He's got that. He can communicate with the horses with his mind. I ain't ever seen anything like Tyler in horse racing, and it's all I ever did."

Tyler Baze is one of those predictable prodigies, a 21-year-old kid whose career choice and potential were evident almost from the day he left the womb. Baze was 3 years old when he first sat in the saddle of a Shetland pony named Rosie. His path was virtually preordained.

The leading rider in the just-concluded Hollywood Park meet and the first winner on Del Mar's opening day is, at minimum, a fourth-generation jockey. His parents rode professionally. One of his grandfathers was a jockey. So, too, was a great-grandmother, Mabel James. Her brother, Basil James, won the 1942 Preakness aboard Alsab.

If this is not the first family of American racing, it's in the photo.

"I always figured the family went back to Jesse James," Earl Baze said, "and they learned to ride to get away from the law."

Tyler Baze's second cousin, Russell, is a Hall of Fame jockey. His uncle, Gary, is still active at Emerald Downs in Washington. Baze has so many relatives in racing that his roots must run in an oval. Yet if there is a transcendent branch on this family tree, it is likely the place where Tyler himself is perched.

In the four years since he was elected the nation's leading apprentice rider, Baze has won 848 races and more than $27 million in purses. With such elite riders as Eddie Delahoussaye, Julie Krone, Chris McCarron, Lafitt Pincay Jr. and Gary Stevens at or approaching retirement, Tyler Baze figures to take a leading role in the next generation of luminaries.

Baze won 59 races at the Hollywood Park meet that ended Sunday, which was four more trips to the winner's circle than were made by his closest competitor, 2002 Kentucky Derby winner Victor Espinoza. Baze consequently became the youngest rider to win Hollywood's title since Pincay first broke through in 1968.

Early success at the track can be self-sustaining. When a young rider demonstrates a hot hand, good horses invariably gravitate to his grip. No trainer can afford to remain loyal to a losing rider if he risks losing the confidence of his investors. No sport is so unabashedly fickle.

"I want to win every single race I run," Baze said between races yesterday. "I ain't out there to run second. If I'm in 10th and I've got no chance and my horse is backing up, I'm not going to sit there and beat on him. But I'm riding for (at least) fifth money every race. Trainers see that you bring long shots in and you're riding hard and they appreciate that. That helps pay the bills."

Bob Baffert trusted Baze with the mount on Indian Express for the 2003 Kentucky Derby. (The horse finished 14th in a field of 16.) Three months later, on Aug. 11, Baze was aboard Kiss an Angel at least temporarily during the disastrous fourth race at Del Mar. A chain reaction caused Baze to be knocked from his saddle and resulted in three horses being destroyed.

"That horse (Mr. Powerful) broke down in front of me and I said, 'DearLord, please keep me safe,' " Baze recalled. "I got lucky. I didn't break anything. But when I went down, I pulled all of the ligaments in my (right) foot from my toes to my ankles."

The swelling, Baze said, made it appear as if a golf ball had lodged in his foot. The injury would cost him a week of riding and, he says, "a lot of good horses."

Baze has been catching up for those lost opportunities at a frenetic pace. He rode one winner yesterday Comprador in a first-race claimer and ran a resilient second in the sixth race on the skittish Semi Lost. He had seven mounts altogether and, on the whole, a terrific time.

"I guess you could say it's an addiction," he said. "I wouldn't rather be doing anything else. Well, maybe fishing."

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