When jockey Russell Baze passes Laffit Pincay Jr. to become horse racing's winningest jockey, which could happen today at Bay Meadows Racecourse in San Mateo, Calif., he will be a fitting torch bearer.
Seven years ago, it was Pincay passing the inimitable Bill Shoemaker's 8,833 wins for the honor, and now, within three victories of passing Pincay's 9,530, comes Baze, who rides six horses today, including three morning-line favorites.
Shoemaker, Pincay and Baze. A winning trifecta.
Shoemaker was a winner because of his temperament and ability to use his assets to the fullest, to get everything there was to get out of his horse.
Pincay was a winner because of his determination and fortitude, which allowed him to fight and control a serious weight problem every day.
And Baze, who works horses in the morning six days a week besides riding competitively five days, said when he is lucky enough to win race No. 9,531, it will say more about his character than his career.
"Down through history, only one person at a time has been able to say he is the winningest rider of all time," Baze said in a conference call last week. "I don't know if it'll define my career so much as my work ethic. But the fact that my work ethic led to me being here, I think, will have more of a defining element of my career than the fact that I actually got here."
Based at Bay Meadows for most of his career, Baze has not always had the best horses or the healthiest horses. He has never ridden a Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup winner, though he thought he had a wonderful chance at the Cup last year on the late Lost in the Fog, who is "probably the best I've ever ridden."
Pincay, who was forced to retire in 2003 because of a broken neck and a severe injury to his spine, said he is not surprised Baze is about to unseat him.
"I always thought he or Pat Day would do it," he said. "Russell is a very dedicated rider, very. He's one of the best. ... He works hard. He is there to break the record."
And Pincay said, there should be no embarrassment for Baze, who chose to stay and make his career in the San Francisco Bay area.
"In my opinion, a win is a win," said Pincay, who plans to be present when Baze breaks his record, just as Shoemaker attended when Pincay broke his.
"I would have been very proud whether I would have won the title in Panama or riding camels over there in Iraq, you know. So this is something Russell should be very proud of, and I hope he enjoys it very much."
Somehow, no matter what, Baze has always had winning horses.
"I spent three years in Southern California, and I had success while I was down there," Baze said. "At that time in Southern California, we had Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye - and Laffit was riding at that time, also. It was a real fiercely competitive jockey colony, and I don't think I was ever out of the top 10 in the standings. But I just thought I could do better here in Northern California."
Eleven times in the past 14 years, Baze has taken more than 400 mounts to the winner's circle. It wasn't always easy, but Baze said he has always done the best he could on every horse, even though he acknowledges that at the age of 48 there are days he doesn't want to go to work.
"I was really impressed by Cal Ripken's record," Baze said of the Orioles great's consecutive-games record of 2,632. "I mean to be able to go out and, you know, he worked sometimes when he was injured, when he wasn't feeling good. He went out there and worked, anyway, and that kind of desire and strong will, that kind of thing impresses me.
"I have days, occasionally, where I just don't really feel like going out there, but I made obligations to the trainers and the owners that name me on horses, so I go out and fulfill my obligations to the best of my abilities. ... I don't get so excited before [the everyday] race as I used to, but during the race, in the heat of battle, the juices get flowing and I'm as competitive now as I ever was."
Baze ranks third in wins nationally with 348 this season, behind Julien Leparoux's 392 and Ramon Dominguez's 354.
Asked how much distance he can put between himself and Pincay before retiring, Baze said matter-of-factly that 10,000 wins is not out of the question.
"I think it's not unreachable," he said. "If I can continue near my current pace, I could be able to reach that in a year and a half or so. So, you know, I expect to be riding for at least that much longer, good Lord willing and the creek don't rise. Hopefully, I'll be able to set it at 10,000 - and maybe a little further."
Racing Hall of Fame, 1999.
North America's winningest jockey eight times.
10-time winner of the National Turf Writers Association's Isaac Murphy Award, for the rider with highest winning percentage.
Special Eclipse Award in 1995 as the first jockey to win at least 400 races four years in a row; he's won 400 in 11 of the past 14 years.
2002 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, voted by his peers.
29 riding titles at Golden Gate Fields and 36 riding titles at Bay Meadows.