Riding into history

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SAN MATEO, Calif. – This one was for the grizzled railbirds who remember when Seabiscuit used to pack them in 30,000 strong. This one was for the small-time owners and breeders who still live paycheck to paycheck. This one was for Bay Meadows and other race tracks across the country fighting for survival.

This one was for the record books.

Far from the glitz of Churchill Downs and the glamour of Santa Anita, at a one-mile track without pretense or luxury boxes, Russell Baze tied the record for victories by a jockey with this 9,530th win on Thursday. He still needs one victory to pass Laffit Pincay, and it's likely to come Friday when Baze has seven mounts. But the celebration started early for a 48-year-old jockey whose grandmother rode horses when she was pregnant and whose family made a living riding and training horses at small tracks across the northwest.

Cynics, even a smattering at Bay Meadows, point out that Baze has never won a Triple Crown race or a Breeders Cup race, or made it big against the world's greatest riders. But the hundreds of fans crowded around the winner's circle and cheering for Baze Thursday didn't seem to give a damn. They knew they were in the spotlight, along with their beloved jockey.

There were cameras from the TVG – the flagship network for racing bettors – Horse Racing TV and affiliates throughout the Bay Area. There was Pincay, arguably the greatest rider in the sport's history, and there was Gary Stevens, another Hall of Famer who wiped away tears after watching Baze tie the record in fitting style.

The road to the Kentucky Derby does not pass through San Mateo. This road is paved by hard-working trainers, blue-collar breeders and gutsy jockeys who regularly climb aboard cheap but game horses that could not gain admittance into Churchill Downs. This is a minor-league track for the likes of Christie's Fame, a filly who'd won two races in 13 starts heading into the sixth race at Bay Meadows Thursday.

Christie's Fame was entered in a $6,250 claiming race for 3-year-old fillies – a spot for horses much closer to the glue factory than the Derby. The breeder and co-owner was Larry Zimmerman, who said that for years he struggled with a nasty gambling habit and recently discovered he had only $157 in his bank account. The trainer was Dennis Ward, who was in New Mexico with another stable of horses and had turned over Christie's Fame to his girlfriend and assistant trainer, Jeanne Shand.

The jockey was, well, suddenly there was none.

Ricky Frazier, who was scheduled to ride the horse, became ill after the second race. As soon as Baze heard the mount was open, he grabbed the Daily Racing Form, scanned to the filly's past performance charts and tried to decide whether the horse was worth a shot.

Shand called Baze's agent, Ray Harris. Harris called his prized jockey, Russell Baze. Then someone called the P.A. announcer.

"Russell Baze will be on Christie's Fame in the sixth race."

Inside the clubhouse, in a special suite set aside for Baze's friends and family, the jockey's father, Joe, was growing antsy. He'd been drinking ice tea all day, but he headed to the bar for a stiff drink to settle his nerves. By contrast, Russell Baze, in his green and white silks, strode toward the paddock looking as calm, poised and self-assured as the 3-year-old filly he was about to board.

Zimmerman, the bespectacled 81-year-old breeder and co-owner who was wearing a sport coat he recently bought at a thrift shop, thanked Baze for taking the mount. Baze grinned as Shand helped him aboard Christie's Fame.

"Let's do it," Schand said. "Let's make this one the one."

About 10 minutes later, all eight horses were loaded into the starting gate for the one-mile race. The bell sounded. The starter's gate opened. Christie's Fame and Baze bolted to the lead.

They led at the turn. They led down the back stretch. They still led at the quarter pole, where Baze looked back twice to see who was gaining on him. From his view atop the horse, from Pincay's view in the turf club, from the view of about 2,000 fans scattered across the track, everyone saw the same thing.

Then they heard it as the filly and the jockey headed down the homestretch toward the finish line.

"Baze blazing ahead on Christie's Fame."

The voice of Michael Wrona, the track announcer who'd also called the race when Pincay took the record from Bill Shoemaker in 1999, reverberated through the grandstand.

"He's riding into the record books with as many wins as the great Pincay.''

With that, the crowd's cheers swelled into a roar, and Baze and Christie's Fame crossed the finish line 4½ lengths ahead of the field. The horse paid $4.80, $2.60 and $2.20 at 7-5 odds, but no one seemed in a hurry to cash winning tickets – assuming they would cash them at all rather than save them as a piece of history.

The crowd roared, and it roared again when Baze rode the filly to the winner's circle, the sound of cheers awakening echoes of Bay Meadows past. The 72-year-old track where crowds of 30,000 once watched Seabiscuit race was alive again.

Baze dismounted, walked briskly to the weigh-in scale, returned to the winner's circle and was engulfed. By television cameras. By trainers and owners. By the Baze clan that included his wife, four grown children and his parents. Joe Baze, who rode horses to make ends meet even after rupturing his kidney in a spill, embraced his son.

"Congratulations,'' was all the man could muster as he fought back tears.

At that moment, no one seemed to be worried about the future of the track. Not even the diehards that pass out the "Save Bay Meadows'' bumper stickers and have marched to protest against plans to build houses on the track site. Even though attendance and the field of horses have continued to shrink, no front loaders, no dump trucks and no developers could steal this moment.

With two races left, Baze still had a chance to break the record. But on the way back to the jockeys room, he stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures, just as he'd done every day, following victories or defeats.

After finishing out of the money in the last two races, he signed only a few autographs while rushing back toward the jockeys room. "Is Laffit waiting?''

"Yes,'' someone told him.

"Let's go,'' he said, breaking into a trot.

Despite all the fuss and attention and adulation, Baze seemed most concerned about Pincay, who'd been at the track every racing day since Saturday in anticipation of Baze's record-breaking race. He wanted to be there, as Shoemaker had been there for Pincay when he wrested away the record in 1999.

When Baze entered a library that served as a press conference room, he took a seat next to Pincay.

The struggling breeder and co-owner had a paycheck for about $6,000 to help stabilize his bank account. The trainer and his girlfriend had a place in history. The diehard fans at a dying track had a reason to rejoice. And Russell Baze had a seat side-by-side with Pincay at the end of the table – and in the record book.

"At the quarter pole, I looked back and couldn't see anybody catching me,'' Baze said.

Pincay, who shuttled back and forth between Southern California and the Bay Area since last week, said, "At the quarter pole, I knew he was going to win. He looks like he had a lot of horse and I told my friend, 'Oh, he's going to win this one, 'Thank God.' "

The two men who shared a record shared a laugh.

Later, in the jockeys room, Gary Stevens found Baze.

"Who'd a thunk it?'' Stevens said, holding a beer.

"Yeah,'' Baze said, holding his riding helmet. "Thirty years ago, a skinny little kid from Washington would wind up tying Laffit Pincay?''

It was a special moment – one for Russell Baze, one for Bay Meadows, one for the little guys in racing who needed it most.