As jockey Gary Stevens embarks on the comeback trail while approaching age 50, he can look to the north for inspiration, where fellow Hall of Fame rider Russell Baze continues to toil at the top of his game in spite of his years.
Baze, 54, led the nation in victories once again in 2012 with 374, 33 clear of nearest rival Ramon Dominguez while mostly staying close to his San Francisco Bay Area home at Golden Gate Fields. It was the 12th time that the soft-spoken rider has topped the national standings since he first accomplished the feat in 1992.
Now beginning his 39th year of race riding, Baze is closing in on 50,000 lifetime mounts and 12,000 victories, both milestones he should reach in 2013. Through Jan. 3, North America's all-time leader had ridden 11,814 winners from 49,924 starts.
"I don't think there's much of anything I can tell him," Baze said when asked what advice he could give to Stevens, who announced his intention to resume riding Jan. 3 after a seven-year absence. "Staying healthy is the main thing. It helps a lot knowing that you are doing what you love to be doing every day."
Baze said he still gets up early each morning to exercise horses and watches what he eats. He says he can maintain an ideal riding weight of 118 pounds with "no problem" and can get down to 116 for a stakes race if he needs to.
Not only did the Vancouver, B.C. native lead the nation in victories once again in 2012, he won at a remarkable 33% clip.
"One out of three ain't too shabby," said Baze, which is about as close as the champion reinsman will ever come to bragging.
Only once in his career, in 2007, did Baze manage a fractionally higher win rate. He has maintained such a consistent strike rate over the years that he put the Isaac Murphy Award— given annually beginning in 1995 by the national turf writers to the jockey with the highest win percentage—out of business.
Baze is locked in a struggle for international supremacy with South American Jorge Ricardo, who rides mostly in Brazil and Argentina. Ricardo comes into the new year with 11,868 lifetime victories. The 51-year-old Brazilian-born rider passed Baze during a 2012 campaign in which he tallied 458 wins.
Ricardo has vowed to keep riding until Baze retires, which doesn't figure to come any time soon.
"More power to him," says Baze when asked about his reaction to being passed by Ricardo. "Our opportunities here (in Northern California) are contracting (with a four-day schedule) and he's riding a lot of races and doing well, so more power to him."
As for Stevens, Baze added, "I wish him good luck. I know he had some knee problems before, which forced him to retire, but hopefully the knees stay healthy…and welcome back!"