Horse racing mourns loss of Baze
Updated: May 18, 2011, 7:04 PM ETBy Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com
LOUISVILLE, KY -- Eric Guillot cried all the way to the track that day, tears streaming down his cheeks, one constant question running through his troubled mind.Why?
It was the morning after May 10, the day 24-year-old jockey Michael Baze was found in his Cadillac Escalade on the backside of Churchill Downs. The vehicle had been running. The young jockey wasn't breathing. He was pronounced dead at 4:47 p.m. EDT, reason unknown. A toxicology report, due out this week after an autopsy failed to reveal anatomical causes, is expected to reveal whether Baze's death was substance-induced. Foul play is not suspected. But Guillot, the Louisiana horseman for whom Baze won multiple graded stakes races in California and beyond, is struggling to believe that such a bright young kid, so full of talent, is now gone. He isn't the only one. From Chicago's Arlington Park, where Baze took top honors in 2010, to the Southern California ovals where he carved out a niche in his early career, trainers who once put him aboard their runners and riders who raced alongside him are in mourning. They remember the young jockey as a dedicated athlete who loved the sport and the horses he rode; a polite young man who was as quiet as a church mouse in front of strangers and kept his personal problems -- and often his true feelings -- to himself. But Baze was also a daredevil who thrilled to the adrenaline rush of speed, competition, and danger. He drove his motorcycle 100 miles per hour. He perfected his game of pool, striving to beat everyone he played. For fun, he used to jump off the roof of his $1 million house, landing on a trampoline he'd positioned below. "He was never scared, that was one thing about him," Guillot said. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Baze went through pockets of trouble. He struggled with alcoholism and was arrested for drunk driving during the Del Mar meet. He was separated from his wife and often depressed. At Oaklawn Park on March 11 he was taken off his mounts and fined $500 when he failed a Breathalyzer test. Two days after the date of his death, he was scheduled to appear in court on a felony charge for cocaine possession stemming from a Nov. 18 arrest in Louisville. "I felt like he'd go in and out; he'd either be high on top of the mountain or low in the valley," Guillot remarked. "But nobody thought it would turn out like this."
Benoit PhotoMichael Baze will be missed by his peers in the sport of horse racing.
Still, the youngster had never ridden a horse until he came down to Del Mar as a 15-year-old. He wound up in the saddle aboard a runner trained by Wesley Ward, sneaking onto the backside before he was old enough to be working there legally. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in talent. Within two weeks, he was breezing horses. "I bought him a helmet and some boots and away we went," Ward recalled. "He was a natural talent. He picked it up faster than anybody I'd ever seen." The kid got his jockey's license on his 16th birthday five months later. He launched his career in 2003. By that time, trainers were already well-aware of his ability. He was a riding machine. "He was the epitome of a giver when it came to his work ethic and personality," said former trainer Nick Hines, who once managed Guillot's Southern Equine Stable. "He never had a negative vibe about him professionally. Each and every time he rode, win or lose, he was always positive. In a loss he'd just come back and say, 'It's okay, we're gonna get 'em next time.'" Hines saw Baze win the Best Pal Stakes and the San Miguel Stakes aboard Salute The Sarge, a horse owned by Southern Equine and named in his honor. The jockey also rode 2009 Darley Debutante winner Mi Sueno for the operation to claim his biggest career victory. But Hines' favorite win picture with Baze in the saddle wasn't taken after a major stakes event -- it was simply taken after a hard-earned score aboard a random racehorse, a runner who was stretching out long off a layup, for whom the victory was a tough assignment. The young jockey's expression as he posed for the camera after piloting that horse to the winner's circle was one of such satisfaction, it still brings tears to the former trainer's eyes. "It was the most perfect ride you could ever give a horse," Hines recalled. "No one else could have ridden that horse as good that day, and the way he was so happy to have done it, that really pulls at your heartstrings, right there."
Benoit PhotoThe jockey celebrated his 24th birthday in April.
“This year, however, Baze was struggling to find good mounts. After starting the season in California, he finished fourth in the standings at Oaklawn Park, where the meet concluded on April 16. But he rode just six starters at the Keeneland meet -- including his final runner on April 29. He was scheduled to be based at Churchill during the spring and many were hoping the new location, a fresh start of sorts, would revitalize his career and his life. Those same people still wonder how he could have died with so many plans in place, a limitless future ahead. That question may remain unanswered forever. Baze passed away with 6,969 career starts, 918 wins, and purse earnings of $32 million. He died less than one month after his 24th birthday. Moments of silence have been held in his honor at tracks across the country, and a memorial service is planned for May 24 at Emerald Downs. Those closest to him will mourn his death wondering if there was anything they could have done to stop it.
It wasn't coincidental that he went all the way to Chicago and won the title there.” -- Trainer Eric Guillot
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