Similar to the Derbys that took place before 2003, the spotlight will be on the actual racers - the 3-year-old horses who have earned their spot on the track. However, a closer look reveals the fruition of dreams that belong to those who ride these gentle beasts - the jockeys. One of these individuals will be Baze, who makes his first appearance at Churchill Downs next Sunday.
Baze comes from a family built on the foundation of horseracing. Born just outside of Seattle, he spent much of his youth at Emerald Downs Race Track where his parents were jockeys. His second cousin, Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze, rode Semoran in the 122nd Kentucky Derby, and to no surprise Tyler decided that some day he too would make this his livelihood.
"I've always wanted to be a jockey," Baze said. "I watched a lot of other jockeys growing up and I thought it was amazing."
His long road to riding began from what current Santa Anita trainer Mike Puhich calls "ground zero." Puhich, formerly with Emerald Downs, gave Baze his first job at the track and exposed him to the many nuances of caring for a horse.
"He began by cleaning out the stalls and then I trained him to become a groom. Tyler was a great worker and had a terrific attitude," Puhich said. "He would do anything I asked of him, at anytime and with complete ambition."
It wasn't long after that Puhich convinced his uncle, Ivan Puhich, a semi-retired agent who represented former jockeys including Bill Mahorney, to show him "the ropes" of becoming a professional rider.
"I met him when he was sixteen," Ivan Puhich said. "He was a bright, young guy, and I took him on after Mike insisted he deserved a chance."
At the time Baze was galloping horses and trying to get his jockey's license, but once Ivan agreed to take him under his wing, all Baze needed to do was convince his parents that the move would be in his best interests. Shortly thereafter, he headed to California with a new life in front of him.
Puhich had done this before. A horse racing agent since 1943, he put himself through college handling a number of riders, and he knew Baze would have to "lose his youth" in order to become successful.
"It was tough at first," Baze said. "I gave up a lot in terms of family and friends, and I called home a lot during those first couple of months; but after that, things happened so fast."
Baze spent the first five months training and working with several thousand horses. Puhich is a former Marine and helped his new prodigy work himself into riding shape.
"Ivan trained him like a prize fighter," Mike Puhich said. "Tyler was always a natural around horses, but then he learned how to take care of his body."
After a successful riding stint at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Baze returned to California where he later became the first Southern California jockey to win the Eclipse Award for an apprentice rider in 27 years.
"You have to have talent," Ivan Puhich said. "I can only teach so much, and Tyler obviously has (talent). He's athletic and has magnificent balance. But more importantly he's a good guy and treats everyone around him with respect."
Call it fate or simply chance, but Baze eventually got a chance to ride a horse named Indian Express. The 3-year-old colt was bred in Utah, of all places, and won two ¾-mile races in Panama. He grabbed the attention of Tucsonan Phil Chess and was quickly brought back to the United States.
Under the watchful eye of trainer Bob Baffert, Indian Express entered the Santa Anita Derby and at odds of 40-1 and came in second, losing to Kafwain by half a head length. It was a huge step because it qualified the pair for the Kentucky Derby.
"I like his heart," Baze said. "He's a big, stocky horse and gives everything he has when he rides."
As this year's Derby approaches, it will be the rookie rider, Baze, on a horse who will be starting only the fifth race of his career. Despite the lack of experience, Baze feels confident about his team's chances and will approach his first Derby like he has every race before it.
"I'm a very competitive person and I want to win this race," Baze said. "I want to win every race I am in. This is a dream come true and I'm really excited about it. Hopefully, I'll ride in other Kentucky Derbys, but your first one is always the biggest."
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