Jockey Michael Baze remembered at Hollywood Park

Michael Baze was battling depression at the time of his death,

although the 24-year-old jockey was remembered for his kindness and

warmth even in the competitive environment of the racetrack.

Baze’s wife, Kelly, mentioned her late husband’s depression

during a memorial on Thursday at Hollywood Park, where Baze won the

riding title in 2007, becoming, at 20, the youngest to win a title

at the track since Bill Shoemaker in 1950.

Baze was found dead in his car near the stables at Churchill

Downs in Louisville, Ky., on May 10. His mother, Teri Gibson, said

she was notified by the Jefferson County coroner of her son’s cause

of death, but declined to provide details pending results of

toxicology results expected to be announced Friday.

”Nobody is perfect,” she said after the memorial. ”He wasn’t

perfect, but he was an awesome kid. He was always the little man of

the house because there was no father figure.”

At the time of his death, Baze was facing a preliminary hearing

after being charged with first-degree possession of cocaine last

November in Louisville.

Gibson said her son had battled depression for several years and

had difficulty sleeping since he was a child.

”From March on, he’s been really good,” she said, speaking in

present tense about her late son. ”I talked to him Monday before

this happened and he was happy as could be.”

That’s how Baze’s family, friends, fellow jockeys and racetrack

regulars chose to remember the young man who hailed from a family

famous for producing jockeys, including his cousin, Russell Baze,

thoroughbred racing’s all-time leading rider.

Michael Baze was fond of donating toys to the families of

backstretch workers and bringing doughnuts for the grooms in the

mornings.

”He was always sweet, like he didn’t have a mean bone in his

body,” said jockey Chantal Sutherland.

Among those attending the memorial were Hall of Famers Mike

Smith and Laffit Pincay Jr., who retired as the sport’s winningest

rider until he was surpassed by Russell Baze. Other riders included

Joel Rosario, Baze’s cousin, Tyler, Patrick Valenzuela, Joe Talamo,

Kayla Stra, Joe Steiner and Paul Atkinson.

”That kid had a warmth about him, I just liked him right

away,” said Pincay, who was already retired when Baze arrived on

the scene. ”I was shocked that something like that could happen to

such a young man. He had so much potential to become a great

rider.”

After the memorial, Smith recalled Gibson had called him years

earlier asking him to mentor her oldest son when he moved to

California to ride. Baze’s father, Mike, was a retired jockey.

”He was just like a son, he’d take it all in so quick,” Smith

said. ”Before I knew it, he was kicking my butt out on the

racetrack. I was always so proud of him, kind of felt like I had a

little piece of (his success).”

Baze took out his jockey’s license at Hollywood Park on his 16th

birthday. He won the riding title at Del Mar in 2007, and scored

wins in several major stakes races. He finished second aboard Nehro

in this year’s Louisiana Derby.

After riding in California, he moved to New Jersey’s Monmouth

Park, where in 2003 he met Kelly, who said she was attracted to

Baze’s ”crystal blue eyes.”

”Today is very hard for me,” she said, her voice breaking as

she spoke to about 125 people. ”It would have been our third

wedding anniversary.”

The couple was separated at the time of Baze’s death, with Kelly

living in suburban Glendora and her husband trying to revive his

career back East.

”He had fallen on hard times recently and was battling

depression,” she said. ”He decided it was best we separate. He

wanted the best for me and felt he couldn’t give it. It was a very

unselfish act.”

Wiping her eyes frequently, Kelly Baze recalled the couple’s

good times together and Baze’s love of driving fast and

snowboarding.

”He had told me many times he was not afraid of dying. Life is

too short to sit around and wonder what if,” she said. ”MC may be

gone from this earth, but his memory will live forever in our

hearts.”

MC was her husband’s initials, Michael Carl.

Baze moved to Chicago last year and won the riding title at

Arlington Park. His mounts earned $3.8 million in 2010.

”He had such quick success,” Smith said. ”You get used to it

and you know what it’s like and you want it all the time. It’s an

addiction in itself.

”I just know he was a real sweetheart.”

It was the third memorial for Baze since his death, with others

held at Churchill Downs and Emerald Downs near Seattle, where the

family is from.

Tyler Baze recalled he and Michael were more like brothers than

cousins.

”I loved riding with him,” he said. ”We’d walk out of the

jocks’ room and say, `OK, let’s get the exacta.’ I don’t know how

many times we got the exacta, but it was a lot.”

Baze’s family said those wanting to contribute to the Michael

Baze Memorial Fund to help defray funeral expenses may do so at any

Bank of America location nationwide. Any additional money raised

will go to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the family

said.

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