by Ray Paulick
After guiding Wahine Warrior to a second-place finish in the10th race on Sunday's closing-day card at Golden Gate Fields, horse racing's all-time winningest jockey, Russell Baze, said to his longtime agent and friend, Ray Harris: “That's it. I'm going to retire.”
So ends a Hall of Fame career that began nearly 42 years ago. Baze, who turns 58 on Aug. 7, rode another warrior, Oregon Warrior, to his first victory at defunct Yakima Meadows in Washington on Oct. 28, 1974.
He retires with 12,842 wins, 9,600 second place finishes and 7,855 thirds from 53,578 mounts. Horses he's ridden have earned $199,334.219. On Dec. 1, 2006, he passed Laffit Pincay Jr., who had been the sport's leading rider with 9,530 victories. His only global rival in career wins is 55-year-old Brazilian jockey Jorge Ricardo, who is believed to be within 100 wins of Baze and still active.
“I was surprised but I was happy,” said Harris, who has been agent to Baze since the fall of 1979 – the longest agent/jockey association in history. “He's my friend and I wanted him to be sound for his retirement. His family wanted him to retire after he got hurt the last time. He won the last stake (Saturday's Albany Stakes aboard Chips All In) and he was leading rider, which is what he wanted. Most importantly, he retired sound.
“He's my good friend,” added Harris. “That's No. 1. We had a lot of good times together, but nothing lasts forever.”
Harris said when he and Baze started working together he asked the rider if he had a career goal. “He told me at the time, ‘4,000 wins sounds pretty good,'” Harris laughed.
Baze, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, is the son of Joe Baze, who was a leading rider in Washington and Northern California, and he has countless relatives involved in the sport. He has escaped serious injury for most of his career, but fractured a collarbone in April in a spill at Golden Gate. Baze returned a month later and continued his winning ways, winding up as Golden Gate's leading rider, with 125 victories and a 27 percent win percentage for the meeting that began Dec. 26. It was his 54th riding title at the Bay Area track.
Baze also won 40 riding championships at Bay Meadows before its closure in 2008. He led North American riders in victories 13 times – in 2014 (324 wins), 2012 (374), 2009 (415), 2008 (403), 2007 (399), 2005 (375), 2002 (431), 2000 (412), 1996 (415), 1995 (448), 1994 (415), 1993 (408), and 1992 (435).
He occasionally left the Northern California circuit, winning Grade 1 races in Southern California aboard Both Ends Burning and Hawkster in the 1984 and 1989 Oak Tree Invitational, respectively; the Santa Monica Handicap aboard Devil's Orchid in 1991; and the Ancient Title with Smiling Tiger in 2010. He was also the regular rider of 2005 Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Lost in the Fog, winner of the Grade 1 King's Bishop at Saratoga.
Baze was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame in 2012. His peers voted him the George Woolfe Award in 2002 and he was honored with a special Eclipse Award in 1995 for being the first jockey ever to win 400 or more races in a year for four consecutive years. He's won over 400 races in a year on 13 occasions; no other jockey has done that more than three times.
What made Baze so successful?
“His work ethic,” said Harris. “He's got a good family and no bad habits – and he's pretty smart. He's just a good rider.”
Harris had told Baze he planned to retire soon after purchasing a home in Arizona. “I said I was retiring as soon as it cleared escrow,” Harris said.
Baze, married and a father of three daughters and one son, could not be reached for comment. He is expected to speak to the racing press on a conference call Tuesday.