Jockey Russell Baze is to Thoroughbred horse racing as Cal Ripken, Jr. was to baseball. In fact, as Baze surpassed riding legend Laffit Pincay, Jr. atop the all-time wins list Friday, it's easy to argue that Baze is more Ripken than Rose -- in reference to all-time baseball hits leader Pete Rose.
The numerical records of Baze and Rose certainly compare most favorably: Baze's 9,531 victories in the saddle are more than any rider to slide his foot through the stirrups; Rose's 4,256 base hits more than anyone to step in a major league batters' box. Each victory and hit was accumulated one step at a time, throughout a progression that took Baze 32 years and Rose 24 big-league seasons.
But Rose had that spectacular flair, that Charley Hustle head-first slide. That Ray Fosse, you might want to move away from home plate, flair. And he certainly won't be forgotten for his controversial departure from the game for his role in illegal gambling and tax evasion.
Baze, on the other hand, rose to horse racing's most storied individual record in a calm quietness. In fact, he remained virtually invisible to the masses. He's never won a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race, and truthfully never has been aboard a leading race-day contender to do so.
But Baze's mainstream anonymity has had little bearing on his industry-wide respect. In 1999, voters deemed him worthy of induction into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, the sport's most hallowed hall in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Fellow jockeys honored him in 2002 with the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, which recognizes riders whose career and personal character reflect positively on themselves and the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
In short, he's a different kind of Hall of Famer than Rose ... or even a jockey's room contemporary like Willie Shoemaker, who were equal parts celebrity and sensational. You won't see Baze posing alongside Shaquille O'Neal in commercials as did "The Shoe" and Wilt Chamberlain.
The blue-collar nature of Baze's 9,500-plus victories compares more favorably to the 2,632 consecutive games played by baseball's "Iron Man," Cal Ripken, Jr. The historic achievements of both athletes can be measured in continued success, slow and steady. Baze heads to work before dawn six days a week, drawing the praise of trainers who marvel in his work ethic despite his financial and numerical success. The downfall for most riders occurs when they fail to show up consistently for morning workouts at the barn, absorbing their afternoon success and not maintaining their business foundation.
What also ties Baze and Ripken is the two legends' commitment to a respective franchise. In an era when athletes bounce from city to city like hot popcorn, Baze's commitment to the San Francisco Bay Area mirrors that of Ripken's attachment to Baltimore's Chesapeake Bay region.
Baseball fans uniformly agree that an era in which a Cal Ripken, Jr. would ever play 21 seasons out of the same Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse are long, long gone. Free agency, big money and egos work against such localized longevity. Nonetheless, Ripken trotted out to his shortstop position each and every night, resisting temptation for increased stardom in New York or Boston, or even a chance to play on annual World Series contenders.
Meanwhile, Baze has given racing a rare local institution from which to hang its hat, much like Pat Day in Kentucky prior to his retirement in 2005. Outside of brief forays to the dog-eat-dog Southern California riding circuit, Baze has remained anchored with his family while riding at Northern California's Bay Meadows and Golden Gate racetracks. Could Baze have partnered with a Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup Classic champion more easily in a bigger market? No doubt. And while horse racing executives bemoan the lack of longevity by its four-legged athletes who are swept off to the lucrative breeding shed, three decades of regional name recognition should be weighted in gold.
The Baze and Ripken success stories also grew from deep family roots within their sports.
Ripken was the son of Orioles' third-base coach Cal Sr., who eventually would become the skipper of the ballclub. Cal, Jr.'s brother, Billy, also comprised part of the O's all-Ripken double-play combination for several seasons at old Memorial Stadium. Cal, Jr. literally grew up shagging fly balls in the outfield of major and minor-league stadiums.
Baze, too, learned his trade from his father, Joe, who was a top rider in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California before becoming a trainer. In fact, Russell's first winner came Oct. 28, 1974 aboard Oregon Warrior, a horse trained by his father. The famed Baze riding family also includes cousins Tyler, Gary and Michael. The roots run so deep that Russell's grandmother actually rode match races aboard his grandfather's horses in Washington state many moons ago.
Critics scoff at the significance of Baze's all-time wins record, citing that he did not ride on the national stages of the likes of Pincay, Bill Shoemaker or Johnny Longden. And that's a fair assessment to make, though Northern California racing should not be considered an equivalent of minor league baseball – or bush-league racing for that matter. Continuing the hardball analogy, these nearly 10,000 victories were not achieved against the Toledo Mud Hens or Pawtucket Red Sox, but rather against smaller-market, major league teams like the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Even if you don't want to whisper Russell Baze's name amongst the legends of the turf, think of his record-setting run in terms of Ripken, not Rose. Appreciate the longevity, durability and workmanlike greatness of a rider whose day in the national sun finally has risen.
Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and HorsePlayerdaily.com