BAEZA, AT THE RACE TRACK
by Pat Lynch
Horsemen's Journal, January, 1967
It's a long way between riding thoroughbred culls in Panama and a champion in America, but Braulio Baeza made the jump look easy.
It was early morning in the Aqueduct tack room. Jockey valets were the only ones in the harshly bright, windowless room. A shirtless, "Snooks" Miller was fiddling with Bob Ussery's riding gear. Valet Dick Dwyer was dabbing black liquid polish on his shoes. Between them, Leroy Dubois was cheerfully poking into Ron Turcotte's riding apparel.
"Who you waiting for?" asked Dubois.
Baeza,"was the answer.
If you have an appointment, he'll be here, man," Dubois said respectfully. "He don't say much, but if you can get him to say something, go to sleep on it."
In 10 minutes, Braulio Baeza strode briskly into the big room. There wasn't a jarring note in his dress. He wore a black soft hat and a well-fitting single-breasted gray topcoat over his slender frame. He had on a white shirt and a dark tie of muted design underneath a faultlessly tailored pin-stripe suit of dark blue. If you hadn't seen the expressionless mask of America's finest racerider in the winner's enclosure so often, it wouldn't be difficult to imagine DPL on the license plates of Braulio Baeza--UN representative from the Republic of Panama.
It wasn't so long ago that 26-year-old Baeza was riding thoroughbred culls of the hemisphere in Panama. Now he sits in his starchly erect style upon America's best colt, Buckpasser, and has a Cadillac for off-course transportation. But he hasn't been living the good life long enough to blunt his sensitivity to the pride and dignity of the working man.
Before a word of an interview was exchanged, he held up a hand and with the grave correctness of the Latin, introduced a man standing in front of his locker.
"My valet, please, Glenn Sullivan."
Braulio took his jacket and tie off and sat down for the questioning. The first thing that struck you about Baeza was his charm and warmth, so radically different from his severe pose before the public. His black eyes mirrored a lively intelligence. When engaged in conversaion, his mouth hovered constantly upon the beginnings of a smile.
Baeza is the contract rider for the presently thin racing forces of John W. Galbraith's Darby Dan Farm. Darby Dan has been on the quiet side ever since the retirement of Graustark, trumpeted as a coming champion until injury forced his retirement at Keeneland last spring. Baeza ultimately inherited the mount aboard Ogden Phipps' Buckpasser. Although Graustark and Buckpasser never met, their respective talents were subject to great controversy.
There's nothing controversial about the subject in Baeza's mind.
"The only fair way to judge them was at the same stages of their careers last winter," Baeza reflected. "If they met, Graustark would have pulled away from Buckpasser. Of this, I am very positive."
Baeza extended his long arms, clasped unusually large hands around a knee and thought about Buckpasser, the first 3-year-old to win a million dollars and winner of 12 straight races this season. Despite Buckpasser's awesome raw speed and power, the son of Tom Fool-Busanda was a compelling testimonial to Baeza's horsemanship as he alternately threatened and cajoled the colt to the American championship.
"Buckpasser resents being forced to do anything," Baeza said.
"What can you do, con him and sort of let him run on his own early?" he was asked.
Baeza protested,"Oh, no. You can't let him relax and do things on his own. He'd just lose interest. You've got to keep after Buckpasser and be careful about the punishment. He wins by as much as he has to. Because of this," he added regretfully, "I don't think I've gotten to the bottom of him."
Baeza exceeds in all departments of his trade. If there is any one thing that makes him stand out over the others, it is an exquisite sense of pace. His sense of timing to overcome seemingly insurmountable leads has had the Phipps' trainer, Eddie Neloy, shaking his head all season muttering, "Man, how can a guy play it so cool?"
Baeza got a license as a rider in Panama after leaving school at the age, he calculates, of "14 or 15." From the beginning, the mystique of pace absorbed him.
In Panama, we had a rider named Jose Bravo--I think he is a trainer in Mexico now," Baeza said. "Bravo was a great judge of pace. I studied him always."
"Did he tell you about judging pace?"
Baeza reacted with surprise.
"Tell me? . . . I never dared speak to him. He was a big man. I was a kid."
It is apparent that the slender, long-armed Baeza has never given the gift of sense of pace serious thought. This is not unusual in athletes of great natural ability. Joe Louis just banged the other guy without speculating what inner chemistry caused his opponent to crash to the canvas. They ponder their weaknesses, not the things that set them apart from other mortals. The punch, the reflexes, the timing--they are just there to be called upon.
On standouts such as Bold Lad and Buckpasser, Baeza has made often debatable moves, charging confidently into seeming traps behind horses with the nation's craftiest race-riders holding the jail keys. Baeza keeps proving himself a slippery escape artist and grateful beneficiary of the ground saved. Most frequently, that ground is the thin difference between victory and defeat. Because of this, it is rare to find Baeza looping his field going into or coming out of turns.
In one way, it is mindful of William Hartack's days of glory. Days when Hartack won stakes after stakes by bravely stealing through on the rail. It is horse racing's most perilous tactic.
Braulio's generalship keeps money piling up at a rate he never visualized as a 14-year-old jockey in the tough Panamanian school Able and tempestuous Manuel Ycaza is another graduate. (WebPage Note: The School was not in existence when Mr. Baeza and Mr. Ycaza learned to ride races.) But Braulio's tactics made even the master-rider Eddie Arcaro, wonder one starry night in Saratoga.
"He's got it all but takes too many chances with the best horse," Eddie said. "I can see a rider taking shots in a big race with a horse that needs breaks to win. But when you're on the best, hell, ride him like the best."
Baeza, a long time admirer of Arcaro, revealed in Aqueduct's brightly-lit tack room, that he was aware of this type of criticism.
"I respect these opinions," Braulio said. "But I don't agree with them. For instance, in the Woodward, many thought I took a big gamble to go through on the rail at the head of the stretch with Buckpasser in the rain and slop. When the hole opened up, I drove for it. On the other hand," he stressed, "I'm not sure I could have won it taking Buckpasser around horses."
The most striking example of Baeza's hot-rodding through apertures in stretch traffic, occurred in the $100,000 Metropolitan Handicap on Memorial Day. His transportation was the Wheatley Stable's Bold Lad. With 132 pounds up, Braulio Baeza steered Bold Lad in a successful pattern more closely resembling a punt return at Yankee Stadium.
Braulio makes the technique sound simple.
It's a case of judging the condition of the horses in front of you," he says. "A horse going strongly keeps a straight course. When they tire, they lug in or out. If you are patient enough, a hole will develop."
For a jockey devoted to this potentially inflammatory style, Baeza's record is almost without sin.
The last time I was suspended? Maybe two years ago here at Aqueduct."
He is well schooled, however, in all the black arts of race riding.
"In Panama there was no film patrol.It wasn't regulated like it is here. You protected yourself and if you didn't . . . " Braulio turned his large right hand in a thumbs down gesture.
"We only had one track. You had to drive yourself to make good. Here, if a rider isn't doing well, he can always pack his tack and go to some other track."
Considering the portrait of inscrutability he paints on horseback, Baeza was surprisingly talkative. No little part of his aloofness when he first came to this country was a poor grasp of English as opposed to his present fluency. Willie Shoemaker was originally tagged "Silent Shoe" because of embarrassment over bad teeth. They now shine like bathroom tile, conversation sparkling with them. In public and around the jock's room, however, Baeza is still a long way from running down the spool of a tape recorder.
From time to time there are reports that Baeza won't hesitate to enforce his own version of racing justice in man to man combat with other riders.
"It is not so," he protested. "Not here, but in Panama I had fights. But my temper cost me races. I learned to control it."
"How do you control it?" he was asked.
"By keeping my mouth shut," he answered.
Braulio smiled warmly at the questioner and walked toward his locker, taking off part of his street costume on the way.
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