A Conversation With Braulio Baeza
by Guy Michaels
From "The Winning System II"
One pleasant morning at Belmont Park, I sat under a huge, gnarled tree and spoke with one of the great superstar jockeys who is now retired and training horses. Braulio Baeza was the leading money-winning jockey in 1965-66-67-68, and 75.
Braulio Baeza was on Foolish Pleasure in the match race with Ruffian in which Ruffian broke a leg and had to be destroyed.
The conversation is one I enjoyed so much. I would like to share it with you.
GM: When, in the States, did you begin your riding career?
BB: I first began to ride at Keeneland in Kentucky, then I went to Churchill Downs, then to Washington Park, Arlington Park and finally to Aqueduct. That was in 1960.
GM: Which was your first major stakes win?
BB: I won the Stars and Stripes race at Arlington with Dunce in 1960. Moody Jolly, Leroy's father, was the trainer. It was for $50,000 and I felt I was walking on clouds.
GM: If I recall correctly you came to New York in the fall, but you weren't known yet by New York fans who tend to be cynical. Did you have any doubts?
BB: Not really. I didn't speak English too well, so I had to depend on my agent, Camillo Marin, quite a bit. However, I won three races my first riding day at Aqueduct.
GM: Were you befriended by any trainers?
BB: Yes, Mr. Bill Winfrey sort of took me under his wing and, besides a working agreement of trainer and jockey, he became my close friend. I began riding for the Whitneys and the Phipps so that certainly got me riding top quality horses.
GM: Who did you ride in your first Kentucky Derby?
BB: I rode Crozier for Mr. Hooper, but I didn't win.
GM: Is it true that you bought back your contract from Mr. Hooper?
BB: Yes, I did. I have the check to prove it. I had spent the winter riding in Florida and I wanted to ride the season in New York. I suggested that to Mr. Hooper and he said fine. However, just before shipping North, Mr. Hooper said that we were not going to go to New York but we would go to Kentucky, Chicago, etc. I said no, because I wanted to ride in New York and I had leased an apartment when he first told me yes. I came up to New York and defied the contract. His attorney called me and told me I could not ride without Mr. Hooper's permission. I was told I had to buy back my contract. I asked how much. He said $100,000. I said OK. This was 1965. I made arrangements and, in time, bought back my contract.
GM: Who was your first Kentucky Derby winner?
BB: Chateaugay in 1963 was my first and only Derby winner.
GM: Did you ever win the Preakness?
BB: No, but I should have won with Arts and Letters against Majestic Prince. I claimed foul but it was not allowed. Arts and Letters went on to beat Majestic Prince in the Belmont. However, Mr. Longden did not want to run Majestic Prince but was overruled by the owner.
GM: How many Belmont Stakes did you win?
BB: I won three. With Sherluck in 1961. Mr. Eisenhower made the presentation. Then I won with Chateaugay, my Derby winner in 1963, and in 1969 with Arts and Letters.
GM: You rode some great horses that have raced in the last twenty years. Who do you feel were the greatest that you have ridden?
BB: Let me think a moment. I would have to say Buckpasser, Graustark and Dr. Fager.
GM: If a gun were put to your head and you had to choose between Buckpasser and Graustark, who would you choose?
BB: It's funny, I had to make that choice in Florida that year. I was riding both horses and I had to choose which one to ride for the classics. Both camps were beginning to press and Lenny Goodman, my agent, was trying to keep both sides happy. But I had an agreement with Mr. Galbreath, the owner of Darby Dan Farm, who owned Graustark and I rode Graustark.
GM: How fast was Graustark?
BB: No one really knows. He was not able to prove how really great he was. He broke down in the Bluegrass Stakes just before the Derby.
GM: Could Graustark give you the eleven-second furlong whenever you wanted it?
BB: Without doubt. Only the Lord knows how fast he really was.
GM: Now who do you feel you would choose between the two?
BB: I guess I would choose Buckpasser. I'll tell you why. Not many people realize how fast Buckpasser was. He could also use his speed anytime that you wanted it. I would almost say that he was the best horse I have ever ridden.
GM: Would Buckpasser beat Dr. Fager?
BB: Yes, he would. But, believe me, it would be one tough fight.
GM: Could Buckpasser match Dr. Fager's early speed?
BB: Yes, he could. Buckpasser's speed was deceiving.
GM: Was Dr. Fager better than Damascus?
BB: He sure was. My opinion, horse for horse: Damascus could not beat Dr. Fager. Remember, Dr. Fager set the world record of 1:32.1 for the mile at Arlington. Whenever Damascus beat Dr.Fager it was done when a speed rabbit was put in the race. It was legal. Dr. Fager was so competitive that he wanted nothing in front of him.
GM: Could Dr. Fager have gone faster in the race when he set the record at Aqueduct?
BB: Yes, but since he had all that weight, over 130 pounds, I didn't wish to take the chance. He was well in hand.
GM: Let's talk about a sad race--the Ruffian Match Race.
BB: That was my saddest win of my life. We (Jolly, the trainer) planned to put Ruffian under pressure from the gate. We knew that in all her previous wins she had everything her own way. Her closest fight was in the Sorority Stakes at Monmouth Park when Hot and Nasty gave her a tumble. But now she faced a seasoned horse in Foolish Pleasure. I broke first from the gate and Jacinto (Vasquez) tried to keep up and he chirped to the filly. She responded and came up almost head and head. Then it happened. I heard a crack--just like a stick breaking. I yelled to Jacinto, "Hold on!" I thought she went down. I rode to the finish but was sick inside.
GM: How about a very sweet win?
BB: I had many. My Kentucky Derby, my Belmont with Arts and Letters--sweet revenge for being denied the Preakness, and my International win with Droll Roll. But I guess I would have to vote my win in England with Roberto, in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup at York, as my sweetest victory. The Queen was there in the Royal Box and naturally excitement was everywhere. I had given Roberto a blowout in the morning and I felt that this was one very sharp horse. I told my agent Lenny Goodman that this was going to be a tough horse to beat in the race. Now we were against a horse that was undefeated, Brigadier Gerard.
I told Lenny that he better be a super horse if he was to beat Roberto. The race began and I found myself on the lead and I was literally galloping along. The foreign jockeys take their horses in hand and begin to ride only the last half mile of the race. So I'm out in front and I'm looking on for horses to come at me. At the top of the stretch about 1/2 mile to the finish, the charge began. The favorite came alongside me, but his jockey was whipping and driving. I had a hold and didn't let my horse run yet. I said to myself, you are not going to beat me today. I chirped to Roberto and he took off to an easy win.
When I came back to the winning enclosure, the Queen waved to me. I felt on top of the world.
GM: Why did you retire when you did?
BB: The weight problem. I just could not take the sweat box anymore. I would wake up depressed that I had to go through the grind of taking that weight off every day.
GM: Are you happy now?
BB: Yes, racing has been very good to me and I hope someday to do something in return.
GM: Braulio, in my eyes, and in the eyes of many who have seen you ride, you are a superstar on and off a horse.
BB: Thank you, Guy.
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