Riding on to the track at Santa Anita for the last race of the Oak Tree meet, leading rider Tyler Baze will flip shaded goggles down over his eyes and take a deep breath of the fresh, dry air, and will think of how close he came to losing this, the one pursuit he loves most in life.
The 25-year-old jockey does not like to talk about his struggles – would anyone? But with personal issues in the past and his status secure atop the Oak Tree standings, Baze can finally look over the last seven years to describe his journey. If hindsight is 20-20, his vision is now crystal clear.
It’s funny how fast you grow up, Baze recalled. You start on a racetrack such as Longacres, grooming horses, cleaning stalls, just a kid. At 8 or 9, your dad teaches you to gallop. At 16, you get your jockey’s license. Then along comes your first big break. You feel like you’re on top of the world.
Sent to Santa Anita by trainer Mike Puhich to ride with agent Ivan Puhich in 1999, Baze was immersed in racing’s fast pace from the moment he set foot on the California track. He rode his first race at Santa Anita Oct. 3, booted home a winner in his fifth attempt Oct. 31, traveled Phoenix to race at Turf Paradise that autumn, and jetted back to Santa Anita to work horses on the dark days.
The trainers liked Baze for this nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, liked him for his class, his youthful exuberance, and his family ties to the West Coast’s legendary family of riding Bazes. Before long, he was riding eight horses on each card. Before long, he was the nation’s leading apprentice.
Baze took home the Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice in 2000 with 246 winners that season, the first California-based rider to do so since Steve Valdez in 1973. Still, skeptics wondered if he could maintain a similar rate when his apprentice allowance was withdrawn.
“When you lose the bug,” they told him, “you’ll lose your business as well.”
It didn’t happen.
He still rode the full card almost every day, still rode winners, and while his percentages dropped slightly in 2002, he was back up in the standings by 2003, getting his first grade I victory on Avanzado in the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap and piloting his first Kentucky Derby starter, Don’t Get Mad, to a fourth-place finish. In 2004 he was Hollywood Park’s leading rider, missing the titles at Del Mar and Santa Anita by just a few wins. He won the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship (gr. IT) and the Del Mar Handicap (gr. IIT) on Star Over The Bay, took the Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. I) and the Pat O'Brien Breeder's Cup Handicap (gr. II) on Kela.
His top mounts included Congrats, Areyoutalkintome, and Sharp Lisa. Where his career was concerned, it seemed as if the sky was the limit. But life at the top was not without drawbacks.
“It was a lot of work,” Baze remembered. “It was wake up, work horses, ride, fly, wake up, work horses, ride, fly…”
That 24-7 grind went on 365 days a year with no breaks, no slack, no room to breathe. The pressure began to outweigh the positives. Baze didn’t handle it well.
The jockey’s personal problems surfaced nationally in 2005, when he flew to Hoosier Park to ride Indiana Derby starter Southern Africa for Mike Puhich. There, failing a routine breathalyzer test, 22-year-old Baze was pulled off his mount and suspended by Indiana stewards. Earlier that year, he had been diagnosed with bulimia and had struggled through a 62-race losing streak at Del Mar. His physical troubles were causing mental and emotional strain. Trainers began to take notice. His business, already failing, slumped even more.
Asked to reflect on those issues, Baze was reserved. He called his substance abuse and poor nutritional habits “other things I thought would help.” He admitted, “I was not healthy at all.” He said, “I lost all my business.”
Then, after a pause, he opened up a little more.
“What pushed me over the edge? A combination of messing up and watching my business fall and getting taken off good horses because of it. I don’t know what else to say. It was tough. It was one of those cases where you can’t figure out what you’re doing wrong when it’s right there in front of your face.”
That face, once childish, is beginning to show signs of wear. There are creases at the corners of Baze’s eyes, and the eyes themselves are wiser, more seasoned. The wear is a product of the jockey’s poor decisions. The seasoning is a product of the steps he took to remedy his situation.
By January of 2007, Baze was well acquainted with losing streaks and longshots. He was lucky if he rode two horses on a card. He felt like he was going insane.
Agent Ronnie Ebanks, a good friend of Puhich’s, had come to California with young rider Joe Talamo. Puhich had always planned to turn Baze’s book over to Ebanks when he retired. In May, Puhich did so, leaving Ebanks to pull off a comeback of major proportions.
Ebanks is no stranger to struggling riders. He once served an 11-month stint as agent for Patrick Valenzuela, whose substance abuse issues have made headlines throughout his troubled career. The strain of working with Valenzuela drove Ebanks to severe burnout; he seriously considered walking away from agenting forever. He did step away from the game for more than a year, but this summer he was drawn back by the talented Talamo. In California, he offered to take Baze's book on one condition - if their relationship was to work, there would be no quick fixes.
“As it turned out, I had a bunch of trainers saying, ‘When he gets healthy, my owners love him, I love him,’” Ebanks recalled. “I told him, ‘Look, the only way to really make this happen is to step away and get yourself completely better.’”
For Baze, there was one problem with that plan.
It scared him to death.
That could have been the end of the story. Baze could have disappeared, dropping the aspirations of success and finding something easier, something else. But there was nothing else, and Baze was not done fighting.
On May 4, the jockey stopped riding and found a fitness coach, the Los Angeles-based Mike Rossi, who lived with him for 30 days. They went to AA meetings and pumped through workouts together. The process was all-consuming. The accountability was exactly what he needed.
“This kid knew every day when he woke up that he wanted to be on a horse again,” said Ebanks. “When he got better he had a huge support system from owners and trainers. They were ready for him to prove that he was ready.”
Over the summer, Baze redoubled his efforts, galloping six to 12 horses each morning. His goal was to ride well at Del Mar, and he finished the season Sept. 5 with 19 winners. Then he rode at Fairplex Park, finishing second behind perennial leading rider Martin Pedroza (31 wins to Pedroza’s 35). At the end of the five-week Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, he won a battle with Victor Espinoza, who conceded the title to Baze by a 29-25 margin.
“We’ve seen Tyler completely dive into getting back on top,” said leading West Coast trainer Doug O’Neill. “He’s in the zone, emotionally and physically. This is the Tyler we saw before he started struggling, but at the same time he’s much more. You see some of these guys with fire in their eyes, and Tyler has that now.”
Every athlete has goals and dreams, and Baze is no exception. For him, however, the drive to succeed is unusually strong, because he has tasted greatness and knows he has the potential to grasp it. And when he took leading rider honors from Oak Tree's 2007 meet, the achievement reflected more than his accomplishments. It was a glimpse of what the future holds.
“To go back and ride the Kentucky Derby again, to go to Dubai and ride the richest race in the world again, to do what I’ve done in the past… to get all that back would be unbelievable,” Baze said. “I’m dedicated. I’m going to do whatever it takes. And I've learned to be appreciative. I'll never take success for granted again.”