Russell Baze: An Unstoppable, Winning Machine

Russell Baze after winning the Grade 2 San Francisco Mile Stakes with Bold Chieftain in 2010. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When it comes to sports stars and achievements in sports, it’s common to hear that numbers can’t tell the whole story, and indeed they cannot. But when your career statistics are mind-boggling and tower over those recorded by any other member of your sport … well, numbers are as good a place as any to start.

During a career that lasted a staggering 42 years, jockey Russell Baze rode in more than 53,500 races, an average of more than 3.5 races per day. That’s enough miles to circumnavigate the globe … twice.

Even more incredibly, Russell Baze won 12,842 of those races, a record that is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon (if ever) by a North American jockey. To put it in perspective, Baze’s closest active pursuer has won fewer than 7,000 races.

Born in Vancouver on Aug. 7, 1958, Russell Baze came from a racing family. In fact, his first win came aboard a horse named Oregon Warrior, who was trained by Russell’s father, Joe Baze. That win took place on Oct. 28, 1974, when Russell Baze was just 16 years old. By the time he turned 21, he was winning more than a hundred races a year, a feat he would replicate every year from 1979 through 2016.

Russell Baze (Eclipse Sportswire)

One by one, the milestones started falling; Baze rewrote the record books so frequently that their figurative ink could barely dry before they needed to be revised again. Spending the majority of his time in Northern California, Baze dominated the meets at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows Race Course like no jockey in history. In 1988, he rode his 3,000th winner; in 1993, he reached 4,000, and his milestone 5,000th victory came in 1995. That same year, he received one of the sport’s highest honors — a Special Eclipse Award commemorating his achievement of winning at least 400 races a year for four straight years. Not content to rest on his laurels, Baze extended the record to seven straight years, and eventually passed the 400 wins mark on six more occasions before retiring.

Needless to say, his win total kept climbing; approximately every 2 ½ years, he reached another milestone. At Pleasanton on July 4, 2000, one year after being inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, Baze won his 7,000th race aboard This Is the Moment. At Bay Meadows on Oct. 26, 2002, he whistled past 8,000 on a horse named Ourwhistlebritches. He soon climbed to fourth on the all-time wins list (for North American-based riders) behind the legendary trio of Laffit Pincay Jr., Bill Shoemaker, and Pat Day; by 2005 he had leapfrogged the latter two and had his sights set on Pincay’s record of 9,530 wins.

It seemed inevitable that Baze would break the record, and the magic day came at Bay Meadows on Dec. 1, 2006. Riding a horse named Butterfly Belle, Baze cruised to a 2 ¼-length victory, putting him past Pincay with a record of 9,531 wins.

Being based in Northern California, Baze didn’t have many opportunities to ride in the most prestigious Grade 1 races throughout the country, but he still rode his fair share of star horses, including some of the best to ever run in Northern California. In 1989, he picked up the mount on Hawkster and guided the 3-year-old colt to a win in the Grade 1 Oak Tree Invitational Handicap, setting a world record of 2:22.80 for 1 ½ miles. Lite Light, Both Ends Burning, Devil’s Orchid, Itsallgreektome, Event of the Year, Smiling Tiger — Russell Baze won graded stakes races aboard all these horses and many more.

On a national level, the horse most often associated with Baze is Lost in the Fog, the 2005 Eclipse Award winner as champion sprinter. The brilliant colt swept unbeaten and virtually unchallenged through his first 10 races, nine of them with Baze in the saddle, and carried Baze to the greatest heights of the sport when they won the Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes at historic Saratoga Race Course. Sadly, Lost in the Fog died of cancer (a rare disease in horses) in late 2006, just months after Baze had guided the colt to a final victory in the Grade 3 Aristides Breeders’ Cup Handicap in his penultimate start.

Russell Baze’s run of success didn’t end with Lost in the Fog; the wins kept coming by the hundreds and thousands. He crossed the historic 10,000-win milestone on Feb. 1, 2008, and, like clockwork, he reached the 11,000 mark 2 ½ years later on Aug. 14, 2010. At Golden Gate Fields, he dominated the El Camino Real Derby, winning the track’s signature race in 1984, 1998, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2014. In 2012, he was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. The following year, he roared past 12,000 wins by guiding Handful of Pearls to victory at Pleasanton on July 7.

Even as he approached 60 years old, Russell Baze continued to ride with unending success. Although he broke his collarbone in a spill at Golden Gate Fields on April 16, 2016, Baze came back as strong as ever with an eye on being the leading jockey at the Golden Gate Fields race meet, which he did in decisive fashion.

Baze's final Grade 1 win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

On June 12, the last day of the meet, Baze finished second in the day’s 10th race, then made a surprise announcement that he was retiring. Just short of his 58th birthday, Baze left the saddle with a final tally of 12,842 wins from 53,578 rides in North America, along with purse earnings of $199,334,219.

Good health and a lack of major injuries played a role in Baze’s longevity and ability to win as many races as he did but, according to Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who partnered with Baze to win 2,893 races, Baze’s work ethic is what made him a legend.

“First of all, nobody can win that many races if they don’t have the ability. But if you combine your ability and apply a hard work ethic, you can be one of the best, and that’s a lesson young riders should learn,” Hollendorfer said. “All it takes is a little more effort to become a great rider instead of just a good rider.”

And there can be no disputing that Russell Baze truly was a great rider.

Fun Facts

  • Russell Baze won five Grade 1 races during his career: the 1984 Oak Tree Invitational aboard Both Ends Burning, the 1989 Oak Tree Invitational Handicap aboard Hawkster, the 1991 Santa Monica Handicap (Grade 1) aboard Devil’s Orchid, the 2005 King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I) aboard Lost in the Fog and the 2010 Ancient Title Stakes aboard Smiling Tiger.
  • According to Santa Anita publicity, Baze won an incredible 54 riding titles at Golden Gate Fields, along with 40 riding titles at Bay Meadows. At Golden Gate Fields alone, Baze won 5,765 races.
  • Baze was honored with the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Award in 2002.
  • Baze retired with a North American record of 12,842 wins, 9,600 seconds, and 7,855 thirds.
  • Baze led all North American jockeys by races won 13 times, in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2014.
  • On Aug. 18, 2006, Baze had a perfect day at the Bay Meadows Fair, winning seven races from seven mounts.

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