While some horse racing purists may look down their noses at California's Summer Fair circuit, no less an authority than Russell Baze, horse racing's all time leader in wins and a member of the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, enjoys the annual summer tour.
"It really helps sharpen your wits when you have to adjust to a new track every two to three weeks,'' said the 51-year old Baze, of the short term Fair meets. "You also get to ride a lot of different horses. It's an available tool for a rider to stay sharp."
Baze, who as of June 16 was leading the nation in wins again - he's been the top rider 11 times nationally and has won 400 or more races 13 of the last 18 years (no other jockey has won 400 in year more than three times) - is taking on all-comers at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, where racing kicked off this past Wednesday.
Racing will run through July 11, with 16 days of racing overall. The track will be dark on Monday June 28, as well as the 29th when the Fair is closed. The Fair will also be closed Tuesday, July 6.
Part of the attraction to riding in Pleasanton is the atmosphere of Fair racing, where the fans are excited to see horse racing live, which for many of them is the only time in the year they venture out to the track.
"(The fans) are not there just for the races - they are there for different things," said Baze. "It's a fun Fair and they're there to have a good time."
Which wasn't always the case for Baze and the other the jockeys.
"The crowd (at Pleasanton) is not as boisterous as it used to be," said Baze, who drew his fair share of razzing over the years when he didn't win a race. "They loved to offer their viewpoint on a particular ride you just had. It wasn't just me, it was anyone they weren't happy with. But recently, they have been much kinder."
Another thing which changes for Baze when the Fair circuit rolls around is how he rides during a race. The fair often features young, inexperienced riders getting their first prolonged exposure to racing.
"The young riders we have here are pretty good group of guys," explained Baze. "There are some riders, who are a little bit more…inexperienced and you have to be aware of that. Sometimes they ride more aggressive than they need to, so you might have to be a little more aggressive in return. But for the most part, I don't have to change what I do."
Working with the younger riders is something Baze enjoys and he tries to be as helpful as possible, much the same way his uncle Gary Baze was when Russell started racing.
"Most of the bug boys (rookie jockeys) will ask me if I see something they are doing wrong to let them know," said Baze. "It's great that they ask me and they are willing to take advice. This is a teachable group of young riders."
The casual Pleasanton Fair horse racing fan knows Baze as one of the best riders, but few probably realize exactly what Baze has accomplished in his career.
The son of Joe Baze, who won riding titles at Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields and Longacres (Washington), Russell rode his first winner at Yakima Meadows in Washington in 1974. Since then it's been one winner after another.
On Dec. 1, 2006, Baze overtook Laffit Pincay as the nation's all-time leading jockey when he recorded win No. 9,531. In February of 2008, Baze became the first rider in North America to win 10,000 races when he crossed the line with Two Step Cat in a race at Golden Gate Fields. As on June 15, he had 10,941 wins.
He has won 37 riding championships at Golden Gate Fields and 40 at the now closed Bay Meadows.
In addition to leading the nation 11 times in wins, he was honored with a special Eclipse Award (horse racing's annual symbol of excellence) in 1995 for being the first jockey to win 400 races or more in four consecutive years. Baze is also a 14-time winner of the Isaac Murphy Award, a national honor given annually to the jockey who rides the highest percentage of winners from mounts (minimum 500 mounts) during the year. The Isaac Murphy was started in 1995 and Baze has won the honor every year with the exception of 2004.
In 2002, Baze was honored with the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, a prestigious honor awarded to him by his fellow riders. The Woolf Award pays tribute to whose careers and personal character reflect positively on themselves and the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
All in all, it's been a great career for Baze.
"The Hall of Fame was special," said Baze. "The Eclipse award and the winning the George Woolf were also both pretty special. I've had some great moments and ridden some great horses like Lost In the Fog and Bold Chieftain."
But at an age when many of the top jockeys in the country retire from riding, Baze is no where near ready to step away from the sport he loves. And he's showing no signs of slowing down.
"I think I've got 2-3 years left in my,'' said Baze. "I'm leading the nation in wins right now, right? I think I will know when (it's time to retire) comes, but it isn't in my mind right now. I'm having too much fun."
When the time comes, how does Baze want people to look at back at his career and remember him by?
"I just hope people will remember that I tried hard on all of them," said Baze. "Whether it was a stakes race or claiming, I rode hard every time."