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.