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Baze unfazed by Derby debut

May 3, 2003
By Greg Bishop
Seattle Times

Maybe the butterflies will make their entrance after breakfast, when he walks into fabled Churchill Downs, looks up at 150,000 spectators and mounts Indian Express for the grandest, most stomach-churning race of his young career.

We're talking Kentucky Derby here, a race 109 years older than this year's youngest jockey the baby-faced, 20-year-old native of Western Washington who is making his first appearance at racing's most hallowed track.

Just don't tell Tyler Baze he's supposed to be filled with awe or bowing every time the band plays "My Old Kentucky Home." He says he's grateful for the opportunity, but not content with simply gaining entrance in the prestigious field.

"I'm not nervous yet," Baze said by phone from Churchill Downs yesterday. "But by (this morning) I'm sure I will be. To tell you the truth, and I don't want to sound cocky here, we have as good a chance as anybody at winning this thing."

He pauses.

"Did I just say that?" he asks. "Time to give it a shot, I guess."

Baze spent most of his life working for this moment. He accompanied his father, Earl, to work at Longacres at the tender age of 4, cleaning stalls and doing chores while grooming both horses and his future.

The Bazes are the area's most famous horse-racing family. Tyler's uncle, Gary Baze, was the most successful rider in Longacres history. Second cousin Russell Baze was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a jockey. Earl Baze works the starting gate at Emerald Downs.

Earl swears he could see his son's potential early. His son was always small, "like a cute little baby doll, and perfect for the sport," Earl says.

He'd watch Tyler ride and tell him, "You're going to be the best. You're the best young rider I've ever seen."

Tyler always answered, "I'm not the best, Dad - yet."

Neither expected this much success this quickly, though. The younger Baze won his first race on Halloween of 1999 and picked up the Eclipse Award in 2000 as the nation's top apprentice. He earned $6.5 million in purse money in 2001 and $3.7 million in what he terms a "somewhat disappointing" 2002.

Trainer Bob Baffert became a staunch supporter. Even when Baffert's other Derby horse, Kafwain, suffered a strained tendon and was scratched from this year's field, he stuck with Baze despite offers from other jockeys.

"I just think he's come along at the right time," Earl Baze said by phone yesterday. "Horse racing needs something. It's needed something for quite a while. They call it the sport of kings, and for me, it's the king of sports. Maybe Tyler, being so young and charismatic, is a good shot in the arm for it."

Raised in Auburn and on the family farm in Graham, Baze left the Pacific Northwest in 1999 and moved to Southern California for purses and experience. He often raced seven days a week, splitting time between tracks in Southern California and Phoenix.

He finished second on Indian Express in the recent Santa Anita Derby to Kentucky Derby competitor Buddy Gil, which earned him a berth in today's race.

Baze doesn't mind the 12-1 odds given to Indian Express, and he said he likes the No. 9 post because "most of the speed is inside of us. We can set the pace, then see what happens." He doesn't mind competing against several jockeys with far more experience. He doesn't care that most odds-makers don't give him more than a fighting chance.

Baffert told Baze to go out and enjoy himself. But this is the Kentucky Derby, and Baze didn't come to enjoy the atmosphere.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity," he said. "I thought it would take 15 years to get this far. At least. This is any jockey's dream, and I'm living it. But I came here to win a race. That's what I plan to do."

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