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A fundraiser was held last Sunday at the Saratoga Hotel in New York on behalf of former jockey Braulio Baeza, who was terminated from his position as the New York Racing Association's assistant clerk of scales last September following a probe of weigh-in records.
Baeza was indicted last September by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer on charges that he knowingly allowed certain jockeys to ride more than five pounds overweight during the last six months of 2004 at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. Last Oct. 5, Baeza pleaded not guilty in a Saratoga County court to charges of conspiracy, tampering with a sports contest, falsifying business records and grand larceny. Also indicted was NYRA's clerk of scales at the time of the races in question, Mario Dsclafani, who also has pleaded not guilty.
Daily Racing Form's Matt Hegarty reported after Baeza's arraignment that his attorney, Paul DerOhannesian, said the government's case against Baeza "showed a complete lack of horse racing knowledge" and that the government's investigation was "sloppy."
Baeza told Hegarty that he was "looking to be vindicated, not just for myself, but for horse racing."
The case, according to a recent item at The Blood-Horse magazine's website, is currently on hold until next month, when first motions are expected to be heard.
The Blood-Horse item also noted that Baeza has been saddled with approximately $75,000 worth of legal fees, according to Janice Blake, Baeza's representative.
Blake heads the Friends of Braulio Fund, established to facilitate fundraising for the 66-year-old Baeza, a member of the Racing Hall of Fame.
Baeza had an impeccable record throughout his illustrious career as a jockey. Born in 1940 in Panama City, Panama, he began galloping horses when he was only 10. At age 15, he rode his first race. He finished last at Hipodromo Juan Franco, a track near his hometown. His first win came two mounts later.
Baeza rose to the top of his profession in Panama. He won the riding title at Hipodromo Presidente Remon in 1958, '59 and '60. In 1960, Chichi Moore, a friend of Baeza's father, introduced Braulio to Camilo Marin, a jockey agent and a wonderful man who I became acquainted with while working for the Daily Racing Form in the 1980s.
In March of 1960, Marin set up an appointment for Baeza to work a couple of horses owned by Fred Hooper at Hialeah. Baeza returned to Panama, but before the month was over, he was back in the U.S. to ride for Hooper. Marin became Baeza's first agent in the U.S.
In his first mount for Hooper, Baeza won the first race of the Keeneland spring meet aboard the filly Foolish Youth. Baeza would become one of the most successful jockeys in the history of American racing. When he retired in 1976 due to weight problems, he had ridden 3,140 winners. A recipient of two Eclipse Awards as the nation's outstanding jockey, he was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1976.
Baeza rode some of the best Thoroughbreds to ever set foot on a U.S. track. He rode such champions as Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, Arts and Letters, Foolish Pleasure, Honest Pleasure, Key to the Mint, Roman Brother, Wajima, Susan's Girl and Moccasin. Baeza rode Foolish Pleasure against Ruffian in her tragic 1975 match race.
Earlier this year, Baeza was at Santa Anita to attend the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award ceremony honoring Mark Guidry.
While Baeza was at Santa Anita, I had a chance to sit down with him between races and ask him about his riding career. Since the interview took place during the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, I put it on the back burner. I taped the interview, with the thought it would make for some interesting summer reading. This week, I popped the cassette in the recorder to pass along to you what Baeza had to say.
The interview began with this format: I gave him a horse's name, and then he would take a stroll down memory lane.
ARTS AND LETTERS: "What a pleasure to ride to ride him. Unfortunately, he got hurt at Hollywood Park [in the 1970 Californian]. That was his last race. He ran a great race in the Kentucky Derby, but he was outrun that day [by Majestic Prince]. He beat us. And he beat us in the Preakness. Majestic Prince bothered us twice in the Preakness. I claimed foul against Majestic Prince, but it was not allowed. I didn't claim foul very often. Then we beat Majestic Prince easily in the Belmont. [Trainer John] Longden didn't want to run Majestic Prince in the Belmont, but the owner overruled him. Arts and Letters would do anything you wanted. You could place him wherever you wanted in a race, and when you asked him to run, he'd respond and keep on running."
BUCKPASSER: "A great horse. You had to have a target for him, because as soon as he went by the target, he just called it quits. As soon as he made the lead, he'd pull himself up. With Buckpasser, you had to time it right. Otherwise, you'd blow the race. I rode Buckpasser against Dr. Fager when they both got beat by Damascus [in the 1967 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park]. Hedevar [the famous "rabbit" for Damascus] made the race for Damascus. Without Hedevar, Damascus would have never won it. Hedevar killed Dr. Fager. And, unfortunately, Buckpasser had a little bit of a problem. He had a quarter crack that was bothering him. Without Hedeavar, Dr. Fager probably would have won it."
CHATEAUGAY: "He is dear to me because he was my one Kentucky Derby winner. I will never forget that race. I still get excited when I remember it. Everything worked out perfect. Each race, leading into to the Derby, he was getting better and better and better. And then, when he came to the Derby, he was just perfect. As a 2-year-old, he had a wind problem. So they operated on his throat. And, as a 3-year-old, he was a different horse."
CROZIER: "He was my first Kentucky Derby mount. He finished second in the Derby [to Carry Back]. It's just too bad he had to run so many times against Carry Back. Carry Back usually beat Crozier. But I won the Santa Anita Handicap on Crozier. That was one of his easiest races. He just pulled away from them in the stretch [to win by 5 1/2 lengths]. I remember he had the outside post, too [post 14]."
DR. FAGER: "He was a great horse, a very competitive horse. He didn't want to see any horses in front of him. He was a very energetic horse. He was a little bit hard to control. But he could punch a hole in the wind. I don't know if any horse could ever have beaten him up to a mile. His speed was very deceiving because he had such a smooth stride."
GRAUSTARK: "He was definitely one of the best horses I ever rode, maybe the best. Who knows? No one really knows how fast Graustark was because he broke down in the Blue Grass Stakes."
FOOLISH PLEASURE: "A really nice horse, but a step below Dr. Fager and Buckpasser. The match race [between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian] has a bad taste in my mouth because nobody wants to see a good horse, or any horse, get hurt, but especially that great filly. We had a plan to make her run right from the start. In all of her races, she had never been asked to run. She was never pushed. I finished second to her in the Coaching Club American Oaks [aboard Equal Change, who finished 2 3/4 lengths behind Ruffian]. That was the last race for Ruffian before the match race. She didn't win that race quite as easy as most of them, and the filly I was on, Equal Change, wasn't as good as Foolish Pleasure. So I thought we had a great shot to beat Ruffian with Foolish Pleasure. But it's a shame the filly got hurt. I outbroke her, and Jacinto [Vasquez] had to hustle her. When she got about a head in front of me, that's when I heard a loud crack, like a stick breaking. And I yelled to Jacinto, 'Hang on!' Then I looked back and saw what had happened. That was sad really. That took all the joy out of it."
HONEST PLEASURE: "Nice horse. He won the Champagne and was a champion 2-year-old. He didn't develop quite as good as a 3-year-old. He ran second in the Kentucky Derby [to Bold Forbes]."
KEY TO THE MINT: "Key to the Mint was born the same year as Riva Ridge. Riva Ridge was the champion 2-year-old and beat Key to the Mint the next year in the Belmont. But Key to the Mint really got good in the summer and fall as a 3-year-old [winning the Brooklyn Handicap, Whitney Stakes, Travers Stakes and Woodward Stakes, beating out Riva Ridge for the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male of 1973]."
MOCCASIN: "Another very, very good filly. I had the pleasure to ride a lot of very good horses. She was one of them."
QUEEN EMPRESS: "She was very good, one of the Phipps fillies. She was the best of her group at the time. She was very consistent."
QUEEN OF THE STAGE: "Another good filly. I remember she was a very good-looking filly. I won a lot of races on her when she was the 2-year-old filly champion."
ROBERTO: "Winning on Roberto in England was exciting. The race was at York. The Queen was there. Roberto won that race easy [setting a world record of 2:07 for 1 5/16 miles that still stands]. He was a super horse. And we beat Brigadier Gerard. He was a super horse, too. He was undefeated going into that race. The Queen waved to me after the race. That was a thrill."
ROMAN BROTHER: "He was a gelding. He was very small, too. I remember winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup [at two miles in 1965] with him at Aqueduct. They were fixing Belmont that year. So the Jockey Club Gold Cup was run at Aqueduct. And he just galloped [winning by five lengths]."
SHECKY GREENE: "A very quick horse. He was very fast."
SUSAN'S GIRL: "A great lady, and very honest. She was like the Rock of Gibraltar."
WAJIMA: "Unfortunately, they retired him too soon. When he just started to get good, that's when they retired him. As a 2-year-old, when I first started getting on him, he was clumsy and very uncoordinated. But he showed he had some potential. So we worked with him and worked with him, and he started developing. But then he popped a splint in Florida. And then as a 3-year-old, he started to get much better with each race he would run."
After sharing his memories of some of the outstanding Thoroughbreds he rode, Baeza was asked to name the best three jockeys he competed against.
"It's hard to pick just three," he said, "because I rode with a whole bunch of great riders, [Eddie] Arcaro, [Bill] Shoemaker, [Bill] Hartack, [John] Longden, Laffit [Pincay Jr.], Don Pierce. In those days, in New York or New Jersey or Florida or California, you'd find yourself riding against a good bunch of riders.
"Arcaro was strong. He was smart in placing his horses, too. Shoe was very smart. He would always ride a very smart race. Hartack was a good, strong rider. Longden was a tough competitor. Laffit was so strong. Don Pierce was another strong rider. He was one of the best I rode against."
I then asked Baeza to name the best horse he has ever seen.
"I was impressed the most with Seattle Slew," he said. "I would pick him as the best horse I ever saw. Cougar impressed me a lot, too. I don't think he really ran to his potential. I always liked him. I wish I could have ridden him at least once."
Baeza also was asked to name the one thing he wishes he could have accomplished as a jockey.
"Win the Triple Crown," he said without hesitation. "I came close twice, but didn't quite make it. I came close with Chateaugay and Arts and Letters."
Chateaugay won the Kentucky Derby, finished second to Candy Spots in the Preakness Stakes, then won the Belmont Stakes, with Candy Spots second.
Arts and Letters lost the Kentucky Derby by a neck to Majestic Prince and the Preakness Stakes by a head to that same rival. Arts and Letters then won the Met Mile before taking the Belmont Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths over Majestic Prince.
The Belmont was the only loss of Majestic Prince's career. It also was the final race of his career. Arts and Letters won all four of his remaining starts as a 3-year-old en route to the 1969 Horse of the Year title. He won the Jim Dandy Stakes by 10 lengths, the Travers by 6 1/2 lengths, the Woodward Stakes by two lengths and the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by 14 lengths.
And, finally, I asked Baeza if he could come up with his fondest memory as a jockey.
"Being inducted into the Hall of Fame," he said. "It was a great honor. That made all of the hard work worth it."