Ricardo riding into history

Any day now, a South American jockey named Jorge Ricardo will become the first rider in history to win 10,000 races, beating Russell Baze to the mark. It will be his latest achievement, but surely not his last. The 46-year-old Brazilian is determined to set records that will never be broken.

Through Jan. 2, Ricardo, who now rides in Argentina, has 9.988 career wins, 30 more than Baze. For most of his career, Ricardo trailed Baze in wins, but, from afar, he began to follow the career of the Northern California star and set out to surpass his win total. While the low-key Baze never seems to make records a priority, Ricardo has embraced the challenge of becoming the winningest jockey in the world.

"To be placed in the history of world turf as the most winning jockey of all times and for the world to know of the importance of South American turf," Ricardo, through an interpreter, said when asked why he was so driven to get to 10,000 wins first.

The son of a jockey, Ricardo began his career in Brazil in 1976 at the age of 15 and soon became the dominant rider in his native country. From 1982 through 2006, he was Brazil's leading jockey for 25 straight years. Yet, he found himself trailing Baze, who was consistently piling up 350-to-400 win seasons in California.

Ricardo's biggest problem was that there were not enough riding opportunities in Brazil, where there is just one major racetrack, Rio de Janeiro's Gavea Race Course. Last fall, he moved to Argentina, where there are three tracks that, combined, race seven days a week. Considering that the riding colony in Argentina is better than it is in Brazil, it was a risky move.

But Ricardo's transition was a smooth one and he achieved his goal, winning at a quicker pace, in Argentina. On Dec. 1, 2006, Baze rode his 9,531st winner passing Laffit Pincay Jr. to become the all-time leading rider in wins. But Ricardo was coming on fast.

Winning races in droves at the Argentine tracks, he passed Baze as the world's winningest rider in February. The two battled back and forth for the next six months, with the lead changing hands several times. In August, Ricardo pulled ahead to stay

Ricardo was the leading rider in Argentina in 2007, winning 450 races there. Baze had 399 winners in the U.S. in 2007, the most of any rider here. With purses higher in the U.S. than they are in Argentina, Baze's mounts earned $6.98 million, about $3.2 million more than Ricardo's.

"To win in Argentina is much more difficult than in Brazil, nevertheless, in my first year here I just won the 2007 statistics," Ricardo said. "I must thank infinitely to all the trainers that had trust in me."

Ricardo is determined to stay ahead of Baze and says he will not retire until after his rival does. He does not want to take any chances of Baze surpassing his final win total.

"I don't know yet when I'm going to retire, " he said "I'll ride as long as my health permits. But, above all else, my idea is to retire after Russell Baze does and with the world record in my hands."

On paper, Ricardo figures to win the duel with Baze. He is three years younger than his rival and, now that he has moved to Argentina, he can ride in enough races to stay in front for good, as long as he stays healthy. In 2007, he rode in nearly 1,000 more races than Baze did.

"It's difficult to foretell, but I think I'll be able to reach between 12.500 and 13.000 races won before I retire," Ricardo said.

Baze and Ricardo have never ridden against one another and have never met. Ricardo has ridden six races in the U.S., three at Gulfstream and three at Keeneland. Ricardo said he would like to ride more in the U.S. and would relish the chance to compete against Baze.

(Here's hoping that someone at the Northern California tracks brings Ricardo over to go head-to-head with Baze, maybe even in a match race. It would be a public relations bonanza).

Who is the better jockey? That's impossible to say, but Ricardo does have the edge in one significant category. He has ridden at the top level in South America, which has an excellent brand of racing, and has won more than 120 Grade I races. Baze has won just four Grade I races, while riding on a second-tier circuit in Northern California.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.