It was 1999 and I trapped Russell Baze in a clubhouse box at Saratoga. The 41-year-old jockey had been inducted into the Hall of Fame that morning, presented a trophy that afternoon and was flying back to northern California in the morning. If people are down to Earth, Baze is the Earth, humble, low-key, just a regular guy wondering why he was being interviewed.
“I look at myself as more of a blue-collar type guy than a white-collar guy who gets to ride the big horses in the big races, which is fine with me,” Baze said, while surrounded by family. “I just love the game. I love riding.”
With 6,600 wins in the books, Baze propped his 5 ½ size loafers on the ledge and fidgeted in his brand new, 37 short, Hall of Fame blazer while I peppered him with questions, finally getting to the one that intrigued me the most, the one that burned at me.
Concussions had messed with my head, dieting had messed with my body, I was only 29, riding well, but grappling with when to say when to a riding career that was on the wane.
“Oh I don’t know. Right now, as good as I feel, it’s not unreasonable to think I could ride until I was 50. The hardest part is the injuries, which I really haven’t had that many,” said Baze, touching the wooden railing for luck. “Besides that, the dieting, to have to watch the weight all the time.”
I kept prying, asking him what would make him stop, how would he know when to stop?
“Either because I’m physically unable to do the job the horses deserve or I’ll just get tired of doing it,” Baze said. “I’m sure I will get to an age that it will be difficult to get psyched up and hopefully I’ll be smart enough to know when that day comes.”
That day came Sunday, June 12, after finishing second aboard $16,000 claimer Wahine Warrior in the 10th race on the last day at the Golden Gate Fields meet. Baze told his agent, Ray Harris, he was retiring, effectively immediately. With 118 wins already this year, Baze was still productive, still a force, still a big fish in the small pond of Northern California racing. But, he knew, 17 years after that conversation at Saratoga, Baze knew it was time. He had ridden well past 50 and well into the record books. Back then, he was chasing Bill Shoemaker’s record of 8,833 wins, which turned into Laffit Pincay Jr.’s record of 9,530 wins.
“Everybody out there says you have to catch Shoemaker, I say it’s not Shoemaker it’s Laffit,” Baze said, like a guy reading a grocery list. “I don’t think about it. Realistically, I don’t think I can keep up the pace we’ve been setting for too much longer. Another year or two of 400 (wins), then hopefully we won’t tail off too much.”
Baze never tailed off, catching Shoemaker, then Pincay and amassing 12,842 career wins. And when it was over, he simply pulled the curtain and went out the back door. It was typical Baze – no farewell tour, no plaque in the winner’s circle, no tears, no regrets.
• This article originally was published in The Irish Field.