He’s the best in dangerous game

Think about it. For morethan a hundred years, men and women around the world have made careers out of riding thoroughbred racehorses, weighing well over a thousand pounds, reaching speeds of 40 mph or more, racing in close quarters against anywhere from four to 14 other thoroughbreds with riders on their backs, each trying to reach the finish line first.

This is without a doubt the most dangerous career in all of sports.

These riders push horses possessing legs as frail as matchsticks to their physical limits every time they emerge from a starting gate. Both horse and rider are one bad step away from disaster at any moment.

I’ve seen horses rear in starting gates, clip heels, duck suddenly from a shadow, jump over rails, throw themselves into lakes, not to mention fall after snapping a leg or suffering a heart attack. Each time without a moment’s notice. It’s amazing anytime an entire field of horses makes it around a racetrack without an incident.

And with every one of those possibilities — and too many others to list here — present every time a race is run, Russell Baze has reached the winner’s circle more often than any rider in the history of the sport.

When Baze crossed the wire in Friday’s fourth race aboard Butterfly Belle ahead of four other rivals in an otherwise faceless claiming race on Bay Meadows Racecourse turf course, it marked win No. 9,531 for his career, one more than Laffit Pincay Jr., who has held the record ever since taking it from Bill Shoemaker almost seven years ago.

“You know, I thought Russell Baze or Pat Day would do it,” said Pincay, reflecting back to when he broke the record. “You have to be both skillful and dedicated. So this is not surprising to me at all.”

And Pincay has been nothing but the classiest individual as Baze closed in on his mark. One of the knocks the national media places on Baze has been that he has done most of his winning here in Northern California, rather than on one of the major racing circuits.

Pincay would hear nothing of it.

“To me, a win is a win,” said Pincay, who won the majority of his races under the white-hot glare that goes with competing in Southern California. “I would have been very proud whether I would have won the title in Panama [his native country] … this is something Russell should be very proud of.”

And Baze, 48 and still going strong in his 32nd year of riding, never set out to be a record-holder.

“You know, when I first started out, I was just happy to be doing this, you know, and tickled to death that somebody was actually paying me to do it,” Baze said. “… I just have wanted to do the best that I could in each race as it came up.”

Even Baze’s record-setting week served a reminder of the potential dangers facing a rider every time he or she places a foot in a stirrup. Wednesday, a horse Baze was about to ride reared up in the starting gate, tossing Baze over backward, this time fortunately into the arms of assistant starters standing nearby.

Dangers aside, to forget to mention Baze when talking about the greatest athletic careers ever forged in the Bay Area would do the man the biggest injustice. He’s earned his spot next to the likes of Bonds, Mays, Montana, Barry, McCovey and Young.

Tim Liotta hosts the weekend edition of “Sportsphone 680” on KNBR (680 AM).

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