Michael Baze arrived at Churchill Downs with the right surname. The Baze clan is legendary in horse racing. His second cousin Russell is the sport's all-time wins leader. His first cousin Tyler won the Eclipse Award in 2000 as top apprentice. His father Mike B. Baze was a prominent rider in the Pacific Northwest. And his uncle Gary was the career win leader at the legendary track at Longacres Park in Washington State.
Young Michael didn't grow up near a track, but at 15 he was the perfect size to be a jockey: 5 ft. tall and 100 lb. And he had the natural talent for the job. By the time he was 20, he became the youngest jockey since Willie Shoemaker to win the Hollywood Park riding title. In 2007 he was the top rider at the prestigious Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Southern California.
But Baze's career slowed down, and just after the running of the 2011 Kentucky Derby on May 7, he arrived at the legendary track hoping for a revival. He had scarcely ridden there, and despite his name, few people knew him. He hired a new agent on May 9 and planned to network with trainers the next day. Sometime overnight, however, Baze parked the Cadillac Escalade he'd acquired over the Derby weekend along a shed row on the Churchill backside and left the motor running. An assistant trainer leaving work before noon on May 10 looked in and thought Baze was sleeping. When the trainer returned in the mid-afternoon, the Cadillac was still running. Security broke in. Baze was unresponsive.
Last week, a toxicology report came back. Baze's death, it said, was brought on by an accidental overdose of cocaine and prescription pain medication. Few people knew that he was due to appear in court that same week to face charges of cocaine possession. To those who follow the sport, Baze's death is a tragedy but no surprise. The list of jocks who have won Triple Crown races and also fought addiction is both lengthy and illustrious. Among them: Patrick Day, Jerry Bailey, Patrick Valenzuela and Kent Desormeaux. Some bounced back. Others did not. Chris Antley, who won the Preakness once and the Kentucky Derby twice, died from an overdose of four different drugs in 2000. He was 34.
Substance abuse cuts across all of society, and no sport is exempt. But there's something about horse racing and the life of jockeys that seems to amplify the problem. Grown men (and women) are expected to weigh no more than 112 lb. (There are "heaving bowls" in jockeys' quarters.) Every time a jockey hits the track, he or she faces the prospect of major injury or death if something untoward occurs while astride massive, fast and high-strung animals that race in very tight quarters. Many jockeys have so much surgical steel in them that they can't go through airport metal detectors without setting off alarms.