Photo: Don August
After literally sweating through 11 days of the sun laden Alameda County Fair at Pleasanton, closing day Sunday promised to bring drama and excitement to the large and boisterous crowd that lined the grandstand.
After a slow start to the meet, Russell Baze had a chance to make history. He needed four wins on the final day to be the first jockey in North American racing history to notch 12,000 wins.
He won just nine races over the first seven days prompting most of the media and fans to start looking at the next stop on the fair circuit, Sacramento, as his likely record setting moment. But then, like Baze has done during all of his 39-year career, he pulled off the improbable.
During a three day stretch, he won on 11 of his 20 mounts to start the rumbling. He then won just one race on Saturday, leaving many to think his chances of winning four on closing day (from 6 mounts) was highly unlikely.
After winning on his first mount of the day, he came back to lose race two after taking a brief lead in the stretch. He came up empty on his third but won the $50,000 Everett Nevin Stakes, followed by a first time starter in race 9, setting up the drama. 11,999 wins with one mount left on in the meet.
Riding odds on favorite Crown of Aragorn, Baze sent the gelding to lead but was pressed all the way and the fast fractions did him in. He faded down the lane and the crowd gave him a nice ovation for his accomplishments.
But as the final race of the day began its countdown, two jockeys took off their mounts, Frank Alvarado and Dennis Carr both felt ill from the day under the heat, and Baze was named to replace Carr on morning favorite Handful of Pearls.
A huge roar from the crowd went up when hearing the announcement and once again, onlookers flocked to the paddock.
Well, you know by now Baze won the final race, setting off nearly an hour of ceremonies, well wishes and autograph signing.
The buildup; however, I must say was bizarre.
Emotions went form a high of realizing Baze had that one chance with one race left, to the low of watching his horse run out of the money. It picked up again when the announcement was made of his last race pick up mount and continued as he led as the horses approached the wire.
His two length lead diminished as Angel Sanchez on Here It Tiz , closed with every stride to make a photo finish that left everyone wondering if he had won, dead-heated or even got caught.
In what seemed like an hour (but actual lasted over 3 minutes) the entire grandstand watched the tote board for the photo results. When Russell’s number 7 was posted, the place went crazy.
As the grandstands emptied out and the jockeys quarters was cleared out for the move to Sac, Baze signed autographs and granted interviews until he simply had to make his way home.
“It was a little extra special today, especially when it got right down to it,” Baze said. “After I need to win the last thee, Sacramento was looking pretty good.
“It was pretty cool to do it this way, especially when I thought he might of gotten me, but my filly extended her head. I knew they would drag that photo out,” he joked. “I would have definitely settled for a dead heat.”
Russell Baze is class personified and his achievements are such that will never be duplicated in the sport of horse racing.
Below is a video I put together to share an up close look at the final ride.