But there are clouds hanging over the industry, and they are low enough to the ground to obscure the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. According to a joint survey conducted by ESPN and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, 35 percent of sports fans 18 years and older acknowledge an interest in horse racing, continuing a modest gain first tracked three years ago.
That said, two-thirds of racing fans are at least 35, and more attention is paid by those who are 65 and over (10.9 percent) than those who are between the ages of 18 and 24 (10.5 percent.)
Well, let's see: Too much dead time between races. The stars of the show aren't associated with shoes that sell over the counter for $129. There are no mascots performing back-flip dunks off trampolines.
And what's with that 15th century trumpet music?
Racing needs a shot of new blood, somebody who can appeal to a young audience. It needs, quite simply, Tyler Baze.
He won't turn 21 until October, but he looks as though he'd need to be accompanied by an adult to watch any movie not created by the animation department at Walt Disney Studios. Baze is supremely confident and yet a little bit star-struck, polished and yet willing to improve.
He is brave and vulnerable and hungry and ready, which is to say as ready as a 20-year-old could ever really be to take the reins of a horse before 150,000 spectators while hearing a college marching band perform "My Old Kentucky Home."
The early favorite Saturday is Empire Maker, the New York-bred colt trained by Bobby Frankel. The cult choice is Ten Most Wanted, whose Beyer speed figures are nearly identical to those of Empire Maker but who presumes to return much more at the window.
But the best potential advertisement for a next generation of racing fans might be Bob Baffert's Indian Express, ridden by Tyler Baze - a kid other kids can relate to. And you know what? He's a native son, latest in a Baze family dynasty in Washington that has produced jockeys the way the Bushes produce politicians, the Barrymores produce actors and the Boones produce baseball players.
Tyler Baze grew up on a farm in Graham. His father Earl, a former jockey, does the difficult, dangerous work of ushering jittery thoroughbreds into the starters' gate at Emerald Downs. His mother, Cammie, also was a jockey.
Great uncle Joe Baze led his first Longacres meet as a 16-year old in 1950. Uncle Gary Baze, the most successful rider in Longacres history, is married to the former Vicky Aragon, the most successful local female rider. Second cousin Russell Baze is a Hall-of-Famer who has won several Eclipse Awards.
And then there is multiple Derby winner Gary Stevens, who, while not technically a Baze, is an uncle by marriage.
In a sport where monitoring blood lines is essential, Tyler Baze has the right stuff.
"Tyler has always been around animals on our farm growing up," Earl Baze once recalled. "He was hopping on the cows, jumping on the pigs, jumping on the horses. He rode anything."
Home schooled in Graham, Baze might have ridden at Emerald Downs, but the four-day-a-week schedule did not extend him the kind of opportunity to learn his craft that he found at Santa Anita, in Southern California, and Turf Paradise, in Phoenix. While kids his age were learning how to parallel park in driver's ed class, Baze was adhering to a seven-day-a-week schedule that required him to commute by jet between his homes away from home.
It was at Santa Anita where, on Halloween night 1999, Baze won his first race, riding a Washington-bred maiden named Fleeting Wonder. He was 16.
Longtime jockey agent Ivan Puhich, the uncle of trainer Mike Puhich, handled everything on the domestic front - food, room, supervision, all those minor details - enabling Baze to hone his craft against the best in the business.
When he was 17, it was a very good year: Baze won 228 races for a total of $3,836,809 in purse earnings, becoming the first West Coast jockey to win the apprentice Eclipse Award title in 25 years. He sustained the momentum as a journeyman in 2001, winning $6.5 million in purses.
And though 2002 was nowhere as fruitful as his first two seasons, Baze appreciated the kind of competition he was up against on a daily basis: Chris McCarrron. Kent Desormeaux. Eddie Delahoussaye. None weighs more than bucket of driving-range balls, but they're all heavyweights.
"It's tough on a person, mentally," Baze said last year. "But you just have to keep trying. Horses have good days and bad days, just like people. You just can never give up."
Baze didn't, and now he's been blessed with, as the song goes, "the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance." Baze's chances clearly are enhanced by Baffert, familiar to casual fans for his omnipresent sunglasses and how the easy-blowing bangs of white hair could make him appear stylish in the eye of a tornado. Away from the camera, though, Baffert is as accomplished a horse-whisperer as any man alive.
The trainer was steered toward his only entry in the Derby (another Baffert hopeful, Kafwain, recently injured a tendon) by Laffit Pincay, the sport's all-time winningest rider who finally was forced to announce his retirement the other day after breaking his neck in a spill.
"He's got a rooting interest," Baffert said of Pincay. "And we're neighbors."
Between the instructions of Baffert and the rooting interest of Pincay, you might presume Tyler Baze's first run for the roses will find him a potential victim of stage fright.
But he's been preparing for this day, one way or the other, since he was 3. Who knows? He might not only win a Derby, but find himself the poster child of a sport that must attract a new audience to stay alive.
Call him Exhibit A, for an industry that skipped over Generation X. A fresh prince for the Sport of Kings.
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