Baeza: Bent by litigation,
but still straight with fans

Mar 21, 2006 4:37 AM

No one looked better on a horse than Braulio Baeza.

Ram-rod straight with eyes dead ahead, like a hawk focused on a hare, Baeza was a still-life portrait in the post parade, but once the gates opened, he was poetry in motion, an artist aligned with his subject, the perfect tandem of horse and jockey in pursuit of victory.

Baeza had no model for his signature style. He set his own standard.

"It was my vision of how a jockey should present himself," he explained. "I tried to be the best I could and improve a horse as much as I could."

That was 30 years ago. Retired since 1976, Baeza currently is embroiled in a legal battle with the State of New York, which suspended him and New York Racing Association Clerk of Scales Mario Sciafani during an ongoing investigation between NYRA and law enforcement agencies concerning, in part, fraudulent weight assignments. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer initiated a probe into NYRA’s weigh-in policies last December. The state says that during Baeza’s tenure as assistant clerk of scales, he fudged on assignments, looking the other way and allowing jockeys to ride over their assigned riding weight.

Baeza, now 65 and looking more grand fatherly than grandiose, is optimistic that his name one day will be looked upon with reverence by all racing fans, as it once was.

"It will work itself out, no doubt about it," he said. "It’s in litigation right now."

Baeza was at Santa Anita on March 12 as one of the former George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winners, who returned to share in the ceremony of the 57th Woolf honoree, Mark Guidry.

Woolf, known as "The Iceman," was portrayed by retired jockey Gary Stevens in the hit film, "Seabiscuit." After suffering a brain concussion in an accident in the fourth race at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, 1946, Woolf died the next day. Since 1950, he has been remembered by Santa Anita, which went all out this year, picking up much of the tab to bring former winners in from all over the country, and capping the evening with a rollicking reunion bash near the track at the Derby Restaurant, which Woolf formerly owned.

Baeza spent much of that evening huddled with his friend and Panamanian countryman, Laffit Pincay Jr. A morning earlier, Baeza basked in the sunshine above the majestic San Gabriel Mountains at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner, where he recounted memories of years gone by.

"Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Arts and Letters," he said, naming three thoroughbred legends that he rode. "I was very fortunate to ride good horses for good people. It would be a tossup between Dr. Fager and Buckpasser as to which was the best. Each was a great horse in his own right. Dr. Fager, he just wanted to run. He could run through a wall. He was fast and he could carry weight. They don’t carry weight today.

"Buckpasser, he knew when the job was done. Right after he got to the lead, he said, ”˜That’s it,’ so you had to work with him."

Not so with Baeza. If he had to work, it was undetectable on horseback. But his demeanor was misleading.

"Baeza would sit like a statue on a horse in the post parade, even if the horse got crazy," said agent Vince DeGregory, whose former clients number Hall of Fame members Pincay, Bill Shoemaker, Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vasquez, Chris McCarron, Angel Cordero Jr. and Darrel McHargue. "It seemed like he always had control of his horse. He was a quiet guy but he wouldn’t open a hole for you. You could come up inside him and he would shut you down.

"I first met Braulio when he came to the United States in 1960. I was struggling in New York and he came in with Mr. (Fred) Hooper. Braulio didn’t talk much English, but he was a gentleman, very soft-spoken and a great rider."

Baeza won two Eclipse Awards, set a mile record of 1:32 1/5 on Dr. Fager in 1968, and rode 24 different champions, including Susan’s Girl, Affectionately, Foolish Pleasure and Gallant Bloom. He won 3,140 races, winning at an 18.1 percent clip. Arts and Letters prevented Majestic Prince from winning the Triple Crown in 1969.

Baeza looks well despite the ceaseless rigors of age. His once-taut body has developed a paunch and his once-keen eye needs the aid of bifocals. Baeza admits things are different today.

"Everything changed in racing, especially the horses and the owners," he said. "Years ago the owners were sportsmen. Racing used to be a sport. Now it’s a business, a real business for everyone involved. Racing has a lot of problems. I hope it vindicates itself because it’s a shame the way it’s going now."

Baeza still speaks sparingly, though his cause is verbose. His backers in the battle with the Empire State have gone to the fore on his behalf.

They have appealed to the racing community for moral and monetary support through the following missive: "Braulio Baeza has been involved in thoroughbred racing for most of his life, as a Hall of Fame jockey, a trainer, a teacher, jockeys’ room assistant, assistant clerk of scales and alternate steward for the NYRA and The Jockey Club. He has always conducted himself with the utmost integrity and has earned the respect from all who know him and know of him.

"Braulio is now faced with vindicating himself from serious charges and desperately needs money to ensure that the case will end in a true and just conclusion. Give back to someone who has given his life to racing—support the Braulio Baeza Legal Defense Fund. Make checks payable to: Friends of Braulio, P.O. Box 62, Elmont, NY, 11003. Thank you for your kindness and support."

Having no first-hand evidence, I can’t make a profound judgment in this case. But there are criminals preying on society who have committed more serious offenses than giving a jockey a pass on a pound of flesh.

On balance, in the case of New York State vs. Braulio Baeza, the scale of justice doesn’t seem to be as accurate as the scale in the jocks’ room.

THE HOMESTRETCH

Most impressive winners of Derby prep races Saturday were A.P. Warrior, resurrected under his new trainer, John Shirreffs, in the San Felipe Stakes, and Lawyer Ron, who reminded me of Smarty Jones in the Rebel Stakes ”¦ My apologies to Laguna Hills, which in last week’s column I said years ago practiced religious discrimination. The city was La Jolla. I don’t know what the "L" I was thinking about.