Braulio Baeza
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by Lou DeFichy

Horsemen's Journal, January, 1967

Whether he is booting home a race horse to victory or spending a night at home with his family, Braulio Baeza carries El Numero Uno rating.

A matronly lady opened the door of the fashionable $100,000 Colonial home of America's El Numero Uno jockey, Braulio Baeza. It is located in exclusive Garden City, Long Island, where residents pay special taxes for a private police and fire department.

As she opened the door, she said in a soft Spanish voice, "Entrar," and smiled.

The lady was Baeza's mother-in-law, the same woman who rarely let the jockey date her beautiful raven-haired daughter alone when they were courting in Panama. Whenever Baeza escorted his wife, Carmen, to a movie, the mother-in-law sat in the middle. The jockey still kids about it and the mother-in-law always laughs, when reminded of this fact.

Baeza walked down the stairs, greeted his visitor with a warm handshake, and said, "Let's sit down in the living room."

Baeza was dressed smartly, wearing a pair of tapered dark brown pants with no cuffs, alligator brown shoes and an open-collar brown and white checkered sport shirt.

The living room was decorated in Italian provincial furniture and costly antique vases. The rug, a rich blue, made one feel like he was walking on air because of its foam underpadding.

Above a red-brick fireplace was a family painting--Baeza, his wife, and three children--Veronica, 6, Braulio, Jr., 5, and Tony, 4.

The living room was divided by a specially constructed glass-beaded curtain, intersected with small, rounded mahogany knobs. It gave the room a tint of the Gay 90's. "That curtain cost a lot of money," said the jockey. "The guy who put it together said he wouldn't do it again because he lost money on it."

The 26-year-old jockey with the Buddha face and almond-eyes, enjoys his home. He has been riding in this country only six years and is ranked as the epitome of jockeys. Even over Willie Shoemaker.

Little did the Panamanian, who in 1949 and 1950 was working for $3 a week, realize someday he'd be worth more than a quarter of a million dollars. That his earnings alone on horses would total more than $11 million. That he would realize a boyhood dream by winning the Kentucky Derby on Darby Dan Farm's Chateaugay in 1963.

Baeza directed a tour of his four-bedroom home. In the rumpus room, the three children were deeply engrossed in the TV Flintstones. They also watch Batman and Marine Boy on a 21-inch color set.

Behind the TV set is a large trophy case that extends almost the length of the room. In it are more than 50 silver trophies won by the jockey. In the rear of the room is a small green-colored bar with two bar chairs. No whiskey bottles line the glass shelves, only Kentucky Derby glasses of the year Baeza won this memorable race. Whisky doesn't agree with Baeza and he seldom drinks.

In another corner of the room are large blownup pictures of the "best horse I ever rode"--Buckpasser. The 1966 Horse of the Year is seen in many paddock and action scenes of the 12 straight races he won.

Baeza is modest. Success hasn't spoiled him. He is shy, but he can turn on the charm if he likes someone. As he sat in a large sofa chair with his wife on his left and the visitor on his right, he talked of plans for 1967.

Frequently, Braulio, always the devoted family man, stopped to talk with his children. If he had the choice of seeing Brigitte Bardot at the Latin Quarter or spending a restful evening with his family, he'd choose the family. There is a feeling of togetherness in the Baeza household that makes you wish all families were like that.

When Baeza arrives home from a hard day's work at the track he is greeted at the door by all three children and his wife. Veronica is usually the spokesman and asks him how many races he won. Whether Baeza won five or didn't win one, he always tells his daughter he won some races. If he says he hasn't, his daughter cries.

The year 1966 was filled with great success for Baeza. He won more than $2,500,000. He could have won the national riding championship but forsook it because he wanted to spend more time with his family in December. As late as Nov. 1 he was only six winners off the leader, Avelino Gomez.

"It's been a tough year," he said. "I'm tired and I worked hard. I kept riding despite some injuries." Last winter he bashed his ribs in a starting gate accident, yet refused to take more than 10 days off. He rode with his ribs strapped with gauze and adhesive tape.

I know I could maybe win the championship if I rode every day from November through December," he said, "but I need a rest. I want to be with my family. It's not a long vacation because I'll be riding again at Santa Anita for three weeks starting after Christmas and then it's Hialeah."

Vacations are limited for jockeys when they're on top. There is a waiting list for their services. No five-day work week or accrued vacation time. Whenever there is big money on the line, they have to ride.

Guess the only time a jockey gets a vacation is when he gets days," the visitor said. Baeza smiled. "Those kind we don't want."

No one can point a finger at the Panamanian and say he is a "shirker." It is the habit of some jockeys to cancel an engagement in the ninth race after a successful afternoon. Not Baeza. "If you make a commitment," he said, "you should keep it. Even if the horse you ride is only a $3,500 claimer."

The subject naturally turned to the best horse he ever rode, Ogden Phipps' Buckpasser. The gallant son of Tom Fool won 12 straight races last year, was racing's first 3-year-old millionaire, and fifth richest thoroughbred of all time with earnings of over $1,200,000.

Baeza admires the courageous horse. "I never rode a horse with so much confidence," he said. "He makes you feel confident."

Buckpasser and Baeza got along so well he rarely put the whip on his rump. "I don't have to most of the time. He just seems to know what he is doing out there."

Baeza is still contract-rider for John W. Galbraith's Darby Dan Farm. If Darby Dan's promising colt Graustark had not injured himself this winter, he might have lost a chance to ride Buckpasser. That is one reason why he won't renew his contract with Darby Dan when it expires in May. "It limits your selection of horses," he says. "I want to ride free lance."

Fred W. Hooper brought Baeza to this country and launched his career. It was a great relationship until Baeza and Hooper clashed on riding commitments. There were some differences and Baeza was forced to pay $100,000 to buy his contract back. It taught him a lesson. Baeza still is thankful to Hooper and the many other people who helped him. "I want to thank them all," he said. "They helped my profession. Of course, there was some good luck and the Good Lord helped. Without it, I wouldn't have accomplished anything."

The jockey's agent is Lenny Goodman, a clever, tactful man who during World War II was a welder in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Braulio calls him "Double-07' because Goodman is an astute handicapper who rarely puts the jockey on the wrong horse. "I owe a lot to him," Braulio said.

The passive Panamanian, with a riding style that fits most horses, isn't always flopping on a horse. He sits still, calm, communicating relaxation. He is heady and never overwhips.

"He doesn't beat up a horse," says Jim Conway, former trainer for Darby Dan. "He is a master of pace, and handles a horse with the skill of a neuro-surgeon."

When Baeza sits on a horse on the parade to the post, he sits there straightbacked, almost motionless. This is the way his father, a former trainer and jockey, taught him. "My father always said never look sloppy on a horse," said Baeza.

A perfectionist, Baeza whips a horse differently than most jockeys. He doesn't use the overhand slash, rather a side-arm flick of the wrist. He claims he gets the same results and doesn't lose his purchase on a horse.

Horsemen marvel at the flawless style of this Panamanian. It is why Baeza will succeed Willie Shoemaker as the "premier jockey of America."

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