Story originally published on April 20, 2013, on DanonymousRacing.com
Gary Stevens had nothing left to prove. At least, not to anyone who’d watched him ride horses for nearly three decades.
Hall of Fame? Check.
Breeder’s Cup wins? Check.
Kentucky Derby victories? Triple check.
But when he walked, or rather hobbled, away from horse racing more than seven years ago, Stevens was broken. He was just 43-years old but nowhere near the rider he’d been just a few years earlier.
Stevens knew his body well and couldn’t escape that fact that more than a dozen knee operations, shoulder procedures and countless more bumps and breaks had taken their toll.
“I was pretty sour,” Stevens told DanonymousRacing.com. “I’d been on a horse since I was 14 years old. There were a lot of miles, a lot of injuries and just basically burned out.”
But still there must’ve been a little flame, something deep down. It’s that sensation that’s hard to describe for people who fall in love with horses at a young age. For Stevens, the spark traced back to Idaho, where he groomed horses for his father (a trainer) as a child and where he ultimately went on to win his first race as a teen.
That fire stuck with Stevens as he rose through the rider ranks, circuit jumping to Southern California, establishing himself as a big race rider and ultimately landing in the national spotlight with his first Kentucky Derby win aboard the filly, Winning Colors, in 1988.
By the time he hung up his tack in 2005, Stevens had nearly 5,000 victories, filling out a checklist of stakes race wins too long to name. While he might’ve been saying goodbye to riding, he wouldn’t leave the sport completely. Stevens spent most of the past seven years as racing analyst. He also starred in the movie, Seabiscuit, and in the HBO Series, Luck. In Luck, Stevens played a jockey in turmoil, ravaged by injury. Hmm.
Whether it was watching big races the past few years from the sidelines or acting out his passion in front of a camera, the flame grew within Stevens again. Late last year, it had turned into a fiery desire to return to racing as a jockey. Was it even possible after all that time away?
“I didn’t know what to expect when I came back,” Stevens candidly said. “I busted my (butt) to come back, lose the weight, get fit cardio-wise and physically.”
Stevens was about to turn 50. The truth was no one knew what to expect. It took him a week to win his first race. The next few weeks were filled with mixed results. But then, just a month into his return, Stevens rode two horses to stakes victories on back to back days at Santa Anita. A week later, he took a third stakes race, winning the Grade 2 Santa Maria.
“The hard work was getting prepared for the comeback,” said Stevens.
“I’m riding well, finishing strong and don’t feel like I’ve lost anything. If anything, I feel like I’m probably riding better than the last 4-5 years before I retired.”
One person who would agree with that assessment is D. Wayne Lukas. A racing legend and Hall of Fame trainer, Lukas was the one who gave Stevens the leg up on his first two Kentucky Derby victories: Winning Colors and Thunder Gulch (1995).
“He’s got a lot of faith in me,” said Stevens.
So, shortly after his comeback, Stevens’ phone rang. On the other end was Lukas. The two began discussing the possibility of Stevens riding a Lukas trainee named Oxbow in this year’s Kentucky Derby. Stevens happily agreed.
Admittedly, Stevens’ first ride on Oxbow, in the Arkansas Derby earlier this month, was not what he or Lukas would’ve hoped for. Although Oxbow had done well in previous derby prep races while running on or near the lead, Stevens said he “experimented” with Oxbow in the Arkansas Derby by trying to ease him off the early pace.
“He didn’t want anything to do with that,” Stevens said.
Oxbow finished a disappointing fifth in the Arkansas Derby. Despite the poor effort, Stevens said he remains pretty confident in Oxbow and likes the way he’s been working at Churchill Downs. Stevens told us that the plan is to let Oxbow revert back to his front-running style in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
The day before, Stevens will also ride in the Kentucky Oaks. He will be aboard a filly named Silsita. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Silsita is coming off a win in the Grade 3 Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park. Stevens has never ridden her before. But Pletcher, like Lukas with Oxbow, is demonstrating a confidence in Stevens’ ability to pull off a winning ride simply based on what he learns from the horse during training and his analysis of previous races.
“I’ve always shot for the biggest races,” Stevens said.
“I didn’t know whether (making it here) would happen or not… I’m just very grateful for all the opportunities Ive received from the great owners and trainers.”
A win in either race this weekend, especially the Kentucky Derby, would make for a great storyline and complete Stevens’ comeback. Whether he’s out to make a point or simply riding to fuel that fire within himself, Stevens has already accomplished something amazing for a rider who truly had nothing left to prove.