The nation's winningest thoroughbred jockey appears to be the classic big fish in a small pond, but when the pond is San Francisco Bay, who can blame Russell Baze for being content? Barring an injury, the 38-year-old Baze is on pace to become the first jockey to lead the nation in victories—and to win at least 400 races—for five consecutive years. Yet only the most serious racing fan might list him as one of the nation's top riders, or even know who he is. The reason is that Baze works almost exclusively at the midlevel tracks of Northern California: Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows. He even works the summer-fair circuit. "You stay up there," says D. Wayne Lukas, the nation's most prominent trainer, "and you might as well be in Russia."
Baze is one of only 15 jockeys who have won at least 5,000 races, but it wasn't until this year that he made his debut in the Kentucky Derby, considered by most jockeys to be the sport's most prestigious race. He finished 14th aboard the long-shot Semoran, and then he quietly returned to the Bay Area. He didn't ride in either the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes, the other two legs of the Triple Crown.
Except for a bittersweet stint on the high-powered Southern California circuit from 1988 to '91, Baze has stayed in the San Francisco area, and he seems serenely unconcerned that he is not accorded the same credit as Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron and Pat Day. "I like winning races," Baze said one afternoon in the jockeys' room at Golden Gate Fields, "but I can do without the fame and the glory. It's hard to leave a place when you've done as well as I've done around here."
In an era when virtually every athlete in every sport craves superstardom and the huge rewards it brings, Baze's attitude is both refreshing and puzzling. Lukas, for one, believes that if Baze wanted to, he could hold his own against the big-name riders who dominate the major races in New York, Southern California, Kentucky and Florida. "He's a good, solid rider," Lukas says. "He's very lowkey and modest. Got a good head on his shoulders. I like him a lot." Yet Lukas rarely has an opportunity to use Baze, because Lukas seeks the national spotlight as much as Baze shuns it.
Within his small pond, the 5'4", 113-pound Baze is regarded as considerably more than a big fish. Rival jockeys regard him with a deference that borders on awe. Earlier this year Baze was horrified when apprentice rider Jose Valdivia Jr. called him " Mr. Baze." Says trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, "Everybody has a tremendous amount of respect for Russell, which is unusual for a guy who has won so much."
One rival who didn't treat Baze like an icon was Ron Hansen, the star-crossed rider who disappeared after cracking up his car on the San Mateo Bridge on Oct. 1, 1993 and is presumed dead (SI, Oct. 25, 1993). In raw talent Hansen was Baze's equal. But in lifestyles they were as different as Dennis Rodman and David Robinson. Hansen was the classic playboy, a guy who operated in the fast lane both on and off the track. Baze is so vanilla that his idea of a good time, he says, is driving his "big ol fat Ford truck" and puttering around his house in Woodside, near Palo Alto, "running the lawn mower or fixing stuff." He's devoted to his wife, Tami, whose father was a trainer, and their four children: Trinity, 16; Brandi, 14; Cassie, 11; and Gable, 6. Russell also loves to read Reader's Digest condensed books, because "they've each got four stories, and they cut out a lot of the baloney."
Yet there's another side to Baze, one that Hansen shared. Baze is intensely competitive and hates to lose. The publicity folks at both Golden Gate and Bay Meadows have learned to give him plenty of space after tough losses. But Hansen would needle Baze. "What happened to the superstar?" Hansen would say, laughing. Baze would seethe, but he respected Hansen so much that he would never lose his temper.
"I like to tease Russell, too, if he doesn't win," says Hollendorfer, one of the leading trainers on the Northern California circuit. "But I don't get to do that too often. He's pretty intense when he's riding. I have enough confidence in Russell to take him anywhere in the country."
Baze was to the saddle born. In the 1920s his maternal grandmother, Mabel (Bunt) James, and her father, Bert James, traveled around the Pacific Northwest looking for racing action. In each town they sought out the hottest rider and horse, and bet that the teenage Bunt could beat him on her pony, Maude. As family legend has it, Bunt won a lot more than she lost. She eventually rode professionally, until she was 30. She retired only after taking a spill when she was pregnant.
Bunt's sons, Earl and Joe, who is Russell's father, later picked up the reins. Earl rode for six years, and in 1949 Joe began his 20-year career, winning riding titles at, among others, Longacres in Seattle and Golden Gate Fields. Joe's cousin, Basil James, was the nation's leading rider in 1936. Russell's younger brother, Dale, has had a modestly successful riding career, and their cousins Gary and Mike Baze were among the leading riders at Long-acres in the '70s and '80s. But Russell has surpassed them all. Last year he won a special Eclipse award, as the first rider to win 400 races four years in a row; and he won the first Isaac Murphy Award, for leading the nation in victory percentage.