Russell Baze has ridden stakes winners at Del Mar before, but Wednesday's come-from-behind victory astride Silver Circus might have meant more. Not because it was opening day of this seaside track's 49th season, but because it was Baze's first stakes win in Southern California since he left those gold mines in the North--Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields.
No matter how many races a jockey wins someplace else--and Baze won more than anybody else at the San Francisco Bay Area tracks, taking 16 straight titles in the last 8 years--it's still stakes wins that catch trainers' attention.
So if there is such a thing as an initiation for a 29-year-old jockey who has won more than 2,700 races, Baze has passed his.
Baze arrived at Hollywood Park in late May and won 20 races there in a season that ended last Monday, but he didn't win a stakes.
One of Baze's unsuccessful stakes mounts at Hollywood was the Bobby Frankel-trained Simply Majestic in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap.
"He rides the grass well and he comes from behind well," Frankel said of Baze.
On the grass and charging on the outside in Wednesday's $67,500 Oceanside, Baze got Silver Circus to the wire by a length over Perfecting as Del Mar opened its season with a crowd of 23,407.
That was 6,000 fewer than last year, when an opening-day and track record was set, but Del Mar officials were satisfied, because, in effect, they were competing for the first time with 10 off-track betting sites, including Hollywood Park and Santa Anita.
What might be a milestone for Baze, if he goes on to become a fixture on this circuit, will be remembered as an overachievement for Julio Canani, the Peruvian trainer who claimed Silver Circus from John Russell for $32,000 last December at Hollywood Park.
Since then, the 3-year-old gray gelding has had two wins, two seconds and a fourth in five starts, before making his first stakes appearance in the Oceanside. Silver Circus earned $40,500 for his owner, Joe Scardino, running the mile in 1:36.
Perfecting had a length on Crown Pleasure, the third-place finisher. Second choice to Crown Pleasure in the betting, Silver Circus paid $7.40, $4.20 and 2.80. The other payoffs were $6.80 and $3.40 for Perfecting and $3 on Crown Pleasure.
The first stakes Canani ever won at Del Mar was the 1975 Oceanside with Willmar. That horse, also a converted claimer, was bought by Canani for $20,000.
Silver Circus' first two races were on dirt before he joined Canani's barn.
"I claimed him with the intention of running him on grass," Canani said. "I told (jockey) Gary Stevens when I claimed him that we'd have a horse for the Del Mar Derby (a $200,000 grass race here Aug. 21). This is the second hard race for him in 10 days, so he'll get some time off before the Derby."
In Wednesday's nine-horse field, Silver Circus was eighth after a half-mile, 6 1/2 lengths behind Perfecting, who was being ridden by Stevens after three straight races aboard Canani's horse.
Silver Circus moved up quickly on the far turn, but Perfecting didn't seem to be weakening. At the top of the stretch, Perfecting still had a 1 1/2-length lead on Crown Pleasure. Crown Pleasure was not going to catch Perfecting in the last sixteenth of a mile, but Silver Circus passed them both.
"Turning for home, I felt pretty good," Baze said. "I was only behind by a couple of lengths, and my horse was striding real good then."
Martin Pedroza was named to ride Silver Circus in the entries, with Baze listed on Old Exclusive, but Baze had an understanding with Canani that he would ride Silver Circus if Old Exclusive was scratched.
That's what happened, and Baze wound up on the third Del Mar stakes winner of his career. The others--Capichi in the 1985 Palomar Handicap and Raipillan in the 1986 Del Mar Handicap--were on one-shot visits in richer, more important races, but Wednesday's win may be more meaningful. It indicates that Baze has arrived for the long haul, as opposed to being a barnstormer from the North.
Horse Racing Notes
The overall handle of $6,085,142 was the most ever bet on Del Mar races. Of that total, $3.3 million was bet on-track and the rest at 10 off-track satellite facilities. The biggest on-track day at Del Mar was Aug. 15, 1987, when $5.6 million was bet. . . . During Wednesday's early-bird betting period, a two-hour stretch in the morning, the handle was off about 50% from what was bet a year ago. . . . Trainer Charlie Whittingham took ill Wednesday morning, left his barn and was scheduled to see a doctor later in the day. . . . Among the opening-day spectators was Sam Rubin, who raced John Henry. Rubin will spend part of the season at Del Mar, the rest of the summer at Saratoga. He now owns four horses and has four trainers, since the horses are based in New York, Florida, Massachusetts and Northern California. . . . A horse outside the No. 3 post didn't win Wednesday until the seventh race. . . . Laffit Pincay is scheduled to ride Forty Niner Saturday in the $500,000 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. . . . Probables in Sunday's $250,000 Eddie Read Handicap are Deputy Governor, Skip Out Front, Candi's Gold, Simply Majestic, Star Cutter, Fitzwilliam Place, Santella Mac and Pleasant Variety.