AUBURN – After decades of seeing him in silks, it’s jarring to see Gary Baze in a suit and tie.
Somehow it doesn’t seem right.
And if he had his way, one of the greatest jockeys in Washington history — the man who has ridden more Longacres Mile winners than any other rider — would still be riding at age 58.
But after numerous retirements (“more than the fingers I have on one hand,” he jokes), Baze called it quits for good in 2011 after he suffered a broken back in an accident while working out a horse at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. But being a Baze, the first family of horse racing in the state of Washington, you never leave the sport. Gary found his calling as a steward, akin to being a referee and a judge.
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You’ll find Baze six floors above the track at Emerald Downs, in a suit and tie, watching intently to make sure races are being ridden fairly and ensuring that everyone in the sport is following the rules.
“I had hurt my knee and I was laid up, so in January 2011, I went through a steward-certification program,” he said. “But then I returned to riding, and didn’t think much about it.”
Baze was riding well until the morning of Oct. 4, 2011. He was working out a horse at Turf Paradise when another horse ducked in, colliding with the rear of Baze’s mount. Baze struck the inside rail of the track on his way down, breaking his back.
While recuperating from surgery, Baze asked if he could observe the stewards at Turf Paradise. That led to a job as a substitute steward at that track, which led to a job as a steward at Rillito Park Race Track in Tucson, Ariz. When a steward job opened in Washington before last season, Baze quickly applied.
Hiring Baze must have been an easy choice for the Washington Racing Commission. For decades, he has had one of the best reputations in the industry, seemingly never taking a misstep.
“I always respected stewards, and it’s a tougher job than what I ever thought it was,” said Baze, who continues to work as a steward in Arizona after Emerald closes for the season. “And this always will be our No. 1 home.”
Baze and the two other stewards, Ken Doll Sr. and Amanda Benton, review photo finishes and can disqualify a horse if they determine there is interference in a race. While that is the highest-profile part of the job, Baze said 75 percent of his work is paperwork, administering and regulating the sport, from things like issuing licenses to looking at possible rule changes.
While comfortable in his new job, Baze still wishes he could be part of the action.
“I’ll miss riding until the day I die,” he said. “That’s something I still wish I could do. But right now, how fortunate I am, that I am able to do something else and stay in the industry. And I enjoy doing this, too.”
Baze doesn’t have to look far to find someone who understands his passion for riding. He married the greatest female jockey in state history, the former Vicky Aragon, in 1999. She returned to riding several years ago after suffering what appeared to be career-ending injuries. She has been off again since last year after another injury.
“She still has the bug, and I think she still would like to ride again,” Gary Baze said. “But me? I am done.”
The thrills never go away, though. On his phone, he has a video of the 1981 Longacres Mile, when he rode local hero Trooper Seven to his second straight victory in that race before a record crowd of 25,931. The infield at Longacres was opened to accommodate fans, and those who were there say it was never louder at the old racetrack in Renton that closed in 1992.
“I could hear the crowd from the quarter pole,” Baze said.
Baze won many graded stakes races, ones with bigger purses than the Longacres Mile, but his two favorite moments are that 1981 Mile and the 1985 Longacres Mile win on Chum Salmon, another local horse taking on some talented California horses.
After falling behind by more than 15 lengths, Baze led Chum Salmon on a furious rally, getting to the lead just before the wire. If Trooper Seven’s win in 1981 wasn’t the loudest moment in Longacres history, the final yards of that race were.
“I had a pretty good feeling about the eighth pole, but until you get by the last horse you’re never sure,” Baze said.
Visions of Baze in his silks after those Mile wins are everlasting.
But at this point in his life, the suit and tie fit him just fine.
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or firstname.lastname@example.org