Russell Baze: Horse Racing's $186 million man

Story highlights

  • American Russell Baze is only jockey in the world to have ridden over 50,000 races
  • During his four decades of racing, the 55-year-old has amassed over 12,000 winners
  • The prize money he has won for his owners totals nearly $200m

Heavyweight champions share a variety of qualities -- but one that often exposes their true nature is the desire for more success as soon as it is achieved.

Take former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, whose satisfaction of winning the Premier League would last as long as the very next morning, whereupon he started planning his title defense.

Or Serena Williams, say, who revealed her mindset after she won her 17th grand slam on Sunday, so matching the tally boasted by the legendary Roger Federer in the men's game.

"I think I'm a little crazy, like something must not be right, because I don't even relish the moment enough," the American said after her success. "I just automatically think: 'What's next?'"

The same approach is adopted by American jockey Russell Baze, a veteran of his sport with a sizable collection of wins to his name.

Nothing too unusual there until you realize that Baze is 55 and that his career wins have eclipsed the 12,000 mark.

"You don't look back, you always look forward," the Hall of Famer told CNN, before giving further insight into his single-mindedness.

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"Every year when the babies come out, you are always looking to the good two or three-year-olds."

What makes Baze remarkable is that he has ridden in over 50,000 competitive races.

Firm statistics are not out there to prove it but Baze is likely to be the sportsman with the highest number of competitive appearances that the world has ever seen. Certainly, no other jockey has ever ridden so many races.

Nonetheless, so fixated is Baze upon the buzz of being competitive in every race that he is still checking out credible rides for the future -- even as he approaches his 40th year in the sport.

"There's just no more exciting thing to do -- especially when getting paid for it -- than being a jockey. It's very exhilarating," he says.

"I just really enjoy the competition and matching my skills against the other guys. I still really love winning the races."

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Now based just south of San Francisco, Baze started riding competitively in Washington state as soon as he was allowed to -- when turning 16 in 1974 -- having been born into a family which had racing as part of its stock.

His first win came a few months later, on a horse trained by his father, a former jockey himself, and the total prize money that Baze has since accumulated stands at a staggering US$186 million.

His career has spawned seasons in the highest echelons of American racing, in Southern California, and participations in the Kentucky Derby and various Grade I races, but it's in the lower end spectrum of racing in North California that Baze is best known (or not, given his relative obscurity outside of racing circles).

At Golden Gate Fields, the diminutive jockey -- who stands just 5'4" (1.63 meters) -- is a giant of the track, fully able to satiate his fierce competitive instincts and, equally as importantly, be given rides that have every chance of crossing the line.

"I am very competitive. No matter what I put my hand to, I try to win it," he says.

"Even tennis against your wife?" I jovially ask, following up on some small talk earlier in our interview.

"Yes," came the succinct reply long on steel and short on humor.

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The response elicited a degree of sympathy for wife Tami, who he married aged 20 and with whom he has four children, but in reality, Baze credits her with providing the bedrock for his phenomenal career.

"She is definitely a big part of my success," he says. "If a guy doesn't have stability or foundation, then I think he is going to wander off the path -- and not be able to physically do it. It's a big part of it."

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Setbacks

For nearly four decades, Baze has not just followed the restrictive diet of a jockey but also led the way in meaty statistics. Of his 50,000 races, a milestone he achieved in January, 'Russell the Muscle' has finished in the money -- the top three places -- over 28,000 times.

He has ridden so successfully that the family home is in Woodside, an area of California often described as one of the 'wealthiest communities in the United States.'

Yet there have been setbacks.

In 1979, well before the likes of Lionel Messi, Roger Federer and Usain Bolt were born, Baze was tearing a disc in his lower back -- one of the few injuries that has continually bothered him in a career where he has broken a litany of bones.

Then then was the horse called 'Event of the Year,' which could have turned into the 'Event of his Career' in 1998. The best ride Baze had ever been given in the Kentucky Derby, the horse went lame just a week before the prestigious race.

"That was a low point, but these things happen," he concedes. "Given the choice, I would have won the Kentucky Derby a couple of times. But I am not going to cry about any of this stuff, because I've had a fantastic career."

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Just before he turned 30, he chose to try his luck in Southern California where some of the country's best race tracks are located: Santa Anita and Del Mar among them.

Almost always finishing in the top 10 of the jockey standings during his three years there, he just did not ride enough winners -- by his own admission -- to make it financially worthwhile, so elected to return home to his happy hunting ground.

A better rider following the higher level of competition, he duly set about establishing his undisputed dominance -- finishing as the country's top jockey in terms of wins on 12 different occasions.

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"His work ethic is amazing and he's never changed that," says long-term agent Ray Harris when asked about the secrets of Baze's success. "He's one of the greatest gentlemen and emissaries for the game in the history of the sport."

So much so that in 1999 he was inducted into American racing's Hall of Fame.

"Being in the Hall of Fame never even crossed my mind until I was nominated," says Baze, who oozes humility and understatement.

"I never started riding to win fame or accolades -- I just love riding. The fact I've got all these awards is great but that isn't the reason I'm doing it."

Or why he is still doing it -- for the recurring question is, of course, when Baze will finally hang up his stirrups? Some, including Harris himself, wonder if it may come next year, 40 years after it all began.

"Guys are always asking me when I will quit, but I don't have a date in mind," says the man himself. "I really can't think what I would do if I quit. I am healthy, in great nick and I love my job."

Which means he will have plenty of time to add to his win tally -- with Baze having been involved in a lengthy battle with Brazil's Jorge Ricardo for the title of 'world's winningest jockey'.'

Ricardo, 51, had 12,072 winners in July 2012 according to a website that tracks the rivals' battle, while Baze is -- at the time of writing -- on 12,043.

"I don't pay close attention to the statistics as it would be like writing an autobiography before you've actually finished," says Baze. "The number now is not going to be the number when I'm done."

The line is delivered in typically matter-of-fact fashion, a trait that prompted him to declare at one point during our interview: "I'm not the greatest interviewee, am I?"

To be fair, he didn't really seem to want to be. But then, when you've achieved as much as Russell Baze has, your actions shout so loud you don't need to say anything at all.

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