There’s something old school about talking to jockey Russell Baze. Gracious, polite and humble almost to a fault, Baze gives off the feeling of a time when a man’s word was his handshake and there was no sense going on about yourself.
Fresh off winning his 36th riding title at Bay Meadows this week, Baze went into Friday’s races just 176 wins shy of Laffit Pincay Jr.’s all-time record of 9,530 career victories — and the only sign that he’s slowing down has been a limit he’s put on his daily workload.
No more than seven rides per day.
“I don’t want to ride as many horses as I did in the past,’’ Baze said recently. “But I still enjoy going out there and riding live horses. It’s a kick. As long as I’vegot live horses to ride, I’ll go out there.”
Baze will tell you he’s only as good as the horse he is riding — and that has been a really good thing lately.
And the bigger the crowd the better.
Last year, Baze rode Lost in the Fog to victory in the Grade I King’s Bishop on Travers Stakes day at Saratoga and the Grade II Riva Ridge on Belmont Stakes day at Belmont Park. This year, he’s already won the Churchill Downs Handicap on Kentucky Derby day aboard Tricky Trevor.
“Most of the time, I figure if I try my hardest during the day, whether I messed up or not, at least I can go to sleep at night,” he said.
After a pause that would make any comedian proud, Baze added. “Like I tell the trainers, ‘You’ll get the best I got … that might not be too good …”
While Baze chuckles at himself, he gives off not one signal that he’s won more races than the likes of Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker and Angel Cordero. And he’s not counting. It takes his agent, Ray Harris, reminding him every so often how far he stands from the record.
“That’s the thing,” Baze said. “When I do think of it, I think of how many more do I need. I don’t think about how many I’ve already got. In some ways, though, I am awed by the fact of how I’ve been healthy for so long and maintain my peak for as long as I have.”
And he’s quick to point out that he hasn’t racked up this many winners all by himself.
“I’m just tickled to death that they’ve had enough faith in me to put me on the kinds of horses that I’ve been able to win so many races on,’’ Baze said. “You have to have that. You have to have the support of the trainers and the owners. You can’t do it without the stock.”
For Baze, a trip to the winner’s circle is a trip to the winner’s circle.
“Winning on a cheap horse feels just as good as winning on a good horse. Sometimes it’s easier winning on a good horse,” he said. “The cheap ones may have physical problems. They may other problems that keeps them from winning as often, and that makes it more challenging. …
“You may kick yourself a bit more after losing a photo in a big race than you do in a little, cheap race. But I put just as much into the cheap ones because I just like to win.”
And, after a “Thank you,” and a firm handshake, Baze gets back to work. Old school.