Baeza: A Jockey Who Enjoys His Work
"I couldn't live without horses."
by Bill Braucher
from The Miami Herald
Sunday, Jan. 31, 1965
Each dawn the lights of a four-door Cadillac rock gently across the dew-plated, gleaming rails bordering Hialeah race track and cut pale shafts through the darkness as the big car glides into the silent parking lot and halts near the shedrows.
The thud of its door slam interrupts the stillness of the barns and disturbs a tenant somewhere into a whinny.
The boy looks incongruous coming from the Cadillac. Five-feet-five, 112 pounds, dressed in tight khakis, he heads for Barn G where the Darby Dan Farm contingent is stabled. There he mingles quietly with the other early arrivals sleepily beginning the routine of a day at Hialeah.
Only after minutes pass and the sun peeps up is the boy recognized. Thursday morning is special. Chateaugay, 1963 Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner, is to work out. The classic posture of the exercise boy in the long stirrups belongs to nobody but the kid in the Caddy, Braulio Baeza.
Baeza is somebody. He has not been riding in America five years and he will not be 25 years old until March 26. Yet the winners booted in by this serious, dedicated youth approach the eight-million-dollar mark. Already he had achieved a boyhood dream of winning a Kentucky Derby. (After the Derby triumph aboard Chateaugay, Baeza said, "When he gets close to the finish he wants to pull up. But I cannot let him do this to me.")
His services are valued so highly that Fred W. Hooper, the Miami horseman, demanded and received a reported $100,000 when Baeza severed his contract with Hooper to ride for Darby Dan last April.
"Every Day You Learn Something"
Success becomes the Panamanian father of three, whose dignity, shyness and charm match his skill. He is generally acknowledged as the best of the Latin American conquistadores on U.S. tracks.
He is also the most intense. Monday he returns from a 10-day suspension by Hialeah stewards for interference. "Always I ride to win," said Baeza. "Sometimes things happen in a race that you cannot help." In his concise way, Braulio summed up the lot of all winning jockeys. The losers, seldom in trouble, are seldom set down.
So the suspension will not be a total loss, as the phrase goes, most jockeys take a whirl at necessities of life usually denied them, like bourbon and blondes. Baeza, a family man who neither smokes nor drinks, spent every morning of his 10 days at Barn G.
"I like to gallop horses," he explained while grinning almost guiltily. "Every day you learn something different about them. I always wanted to be a jockey and I enjoy my work."
He thought a moment and laughed gleefully, "To tell the truth," he said, "I don't think I can live without horses."
"The Horse Will Tell You"
Horses and Baeza have been inseparable since, in his words, "before I was born."His father, Carlos, and grandfather, Jeronimo, owned, trained and rode horses in Chile. Braulio has been riding since, at 15, he finished last on Pebedero at Juan Franco track in Panama, where President Jose Antonio (Chichi) Remon was assassinated in 1955. He learned to ride at six, won his first race at 15.
As a boy in Panama City, he sat through movies just to watch U.S. races in newsreels. "I watched one newsreel five times," he said. "Eddie Arcaro would always win. He was a beautiful hand-rider.
I like to hand-ride, too, but it depends on the horse. Some will give you the best that way. Others, they don't give you one inch.
"You can tell. The horse will tell you every time." Braulio laughed in embarrassment at his usage. He has labored to learn English and is a student of television, where he strains for the words in the situations they apply. "I don't mean the horse will tell you in words, but actions. If there's any pain or he's not feeling well, he'll show you."
"What Went Wrong?" He Asked
Baeza's hero is Jimmy Conway, the shrewd Darby Dan trainer with an eye for a horse as well as jockey. The 54-year-old Irishman considers Baeza right now to be as good as any of the little men in racing history.
"He has as uncanny, unique way with horses," said Conway. "It's hard to find a comparison. Willie Shoemaker, for instance, is a great rider. Horses run for him as they do Braulio. Shoemaker's style is like Laverne Fator's, another great one.
But Baeza. Well, perhaps he could be compared in his judgment to Eric Guerin in his prime. Guerin was a superb judge of horses. He could jump off a horse and tell you it was worth $7.500. And by golly he'd be right. When he wasn't, there was a reason."
Baeza, the perfectionist, still searches his mind for a reason he lost a race last August at Saratoga. He rode Bless Swaps, a blueblood filly by Swaps out of Idun. The $4,200 affair for non-winners other than maiden or claiming figured to be a romp for Conway's filly. She was backed down to 7-10 accordingly. She finished ninth.
"What went wrong? I kept thinking, what went wrong," said Baeza. "I couldn't report back right after the race. I stalled and thought before turning the filly around. What went wrong?"
Still mad and mystified, Baeza finally brought Bless Swaps back to Conway. Shame and confusion was written all over Braulio's face.
"Forget it," Conway snapped. "You know this racing strip is tough on sprinters. You'll be all right when we get back to Aqueduct."
Neither Baeza nor the kindly Conway had forgotten what everybody in New York knew last summer. The Saratoga strip had been overhauled and was practically a duplicate of Aqueduct's.
"I Wanted to Go on My Own"
The Baeza-Conway friendship, like the Musketeers', evolved from strife. Braulio felt he had to break the contract with Hooper, the man who first hired him and sponsored his immigration in 1960.
"I'm not mad at anybody about it," said Baeza. "I would do anything for Mr. Conway because he gave me my biggest dream, winning the Kentucky Derby. Mr. Hooper was very good about this, too. He let me ride the horse while I was under contract to him.
"But last year I wanted to go on my own. When I first came to America, I could not read or write English. I signed a contract. Then I'd sign a slip of paper every year to renew." (The contract contained options that could have bound Baeza to its terms through 1965.)
"Finally I tried every way to reason with Mr. Hooper. I told him I wanted to ride in New York. At first he said okay, we have horses in New York. So I took a two-year lease on an apartment there for $250 a month.
"Later, Mr. Hooper changed his mind. He wanted me to ride in Kentucky and Chicago and California. But I still had the New York apartment. I bought a home here in Miami, and I had another apartment in California. It would be too much to pay. I had to get out of the contract."
"No todo lo que brilla es oro." All is not gold that glitters.
Baeza rediscovered the impact of his favorite aphorism during the contract trouble.
"From now on I want to stay in Miami in the winter and ride in New York in the summer.It's best for my family.My family is my joy. The children brighten our lives. They are the reason for living."
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