If Tyler Baze wins the Kentucky Derby on May 3, he won’t be the youngest jockey to win the race.
He won’t be 21 until Oct. 19. But Baze would be the most youthful winning rider in more than a century. The youngest jockeys to win were Alonzo Clayton on Azra in 1892, and James (Soup) Perkins on Halma in 1895. Both were 15 and African-American.
For now, Baze would be satisfied to ride in the Derby. He is sitting on ready with the unlikeliest of horses, a colt bred in Utah that won his first two races in Panama, ran fourth in his United States debut in a modest 6 Â½-furlong stakes, then came back 14 days later to run second by a head at 35-1 in the Santa Anita Derby at a mile and an eighth.
The horse is Indian Express, a son of 1998 Santa Anita Derby winner Indian Charlie, who was third behind Real Quiet in that year’s Run for the Roses.
If you thought Indian Express was a longshot in the Santa Anita Derby, wait till he gets to Kentucky. A horse bred in Utah has never won the Derby in 128 previous runnings. And not only would Baze be riding in his first Kentucky Derby, it would be his first ride at Churchill Downs. But that doesn’t faze Baze. Youth and confidence are impervious weapons.
"I can’t wait," Baze said in anticipation of his first Kentucky Derby experience. "It’s going to be fun, especially if the horse runs like he did in the Santa Anita Derby. I expect him to run better."
Indian Express does have one thing going for him. He’s trained by Bob Baffert, who has saddled three of the last six Derby winners, including War Emblem last year.
Baze can’t draw on first-hand wisdom, but he won’t be naive going into the race.
"I’m sure I’ll talk to Gary (Stevens) or Eddie D. (Delahoussaye) or (Kent) Desormeaux (each with at least two Kentucky Derby victories), but pretty much I’m going to do what Bob tells me to do," the baby-faced Baze said. "If Bob says take him to the lead or press the pace, that’s what I’ll do. If he says take him back, that’s what I’ll do. I’m going to do whatever he tells me."
In a pinch, Baze can always call on family for advice. The Bazes were weaned in the saddle, be they jockeys, trainers or you-name-it.
The most successful has been Russell Baze, a 44-year-old uncle of Tyler’s who has won more riding championships in the Bay Area than any jockey in history. A member of racing’s Hall of Fame, Russell is the epitome of a Big Fish in a Small Pond. For all his success and domination in Northern California, his only Derby mount came in 1996, when he finished 14th on Semoran, trained by Baffert.
Despite Tyler’s inexperience, Baffert said he will not take him off Indian Express in the Derby, even though last-minute rider changes in the Derby have been made in the past. Most notable was in 2000, when Bobby Frankel opted for Alex Solis over Brice Blanc on Aptitude. Blanc already had made his plane reservations for Louisville.
"I rode the horse good," Baze said of his performance on Indian Express in the Santa Anita Derby. "I did exactly what he (Baffert) said and we tried so hard to win, but we got beat. It would be Bob’s choice if he wanted to take me off, but I like the horse, I’ve ridden him twice and I know him pretty good. He was perfect the first time I rode him (in the San Pedro) and he was even better last time.
"He surprised me by running as good as he did (in the Santa Anita Derby). I knew he’d run good, but I didn’t know he’d run that good. He got so tired, because he tried so hard. He has a big heart. It excites me every time I think about it, because next time he’ll be twice as good."
It’s every jockey’s dream to win the world’s greatest race and Tyler Baze is no exception, even though Bobby Frankel is sitting with a pat hand in Empire Maker and Peace Rules.
"Winning the Derby would be like winning the World Series or the Super Bowl," Baze said. "It’s a big thing for me and for my immediate family. It means a lot. If the horse runs like he did in the Santa Anita Derby, those horses won’t beat him again."
HOMESTRETCH: Professional clocker Gary Young’s take on the Santa Anita Derby: "I know the track wasn’t as fast for the race as it can sometimes be on big days at Santa Anita, but you can’t really not pay attention to the fact that the final three-eighths went in 39 seconds. What happened to Atswhatimtalknbout is anyone’s guess. I thought the horse was a good horse before the race and I’m not going to condemn a horse for one race, but he was supposed to run better than he did. Right now, if you had to pick a horse, Empire Maker would be the one, although, no disrespect to Trust N Luck, Empire Maker will have to run against horses that are a lot better than Trust N Luck to win the Derby. The horse that won the Aventure at Gulfstream (Dynever) impressed the hell out of me and Buddy Gil is a hard-trying horse. I can’t knock him. Then there’s Peace Rules. It’s pretty tough to imagine that horse doing what he did (winning the Louisiana Derby by 2 1/4 lengths) after running two races where he didn’t hit the board on the dirt, then he up and wins the Louisiana Derby. But there are a lot of things in this game that are a little tough to figure out these days."
Times have changed: the total purse for the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, was $1,000.
Best post-race comment last Saturday came from Edgar Prado, the winning jockey on Peace Rules in the Blue Grass Stakes: "First, I’d like to dedicate this win to all the troops fighting in Iraq. Let peace rule around the world."