The last great horse Gary Stevens rode prior to his comeback probably was "Seabiscuit" in 2003, and when you're aboard the winner of the Race of the Century, it doesn't even matter that it was pretend. Hollywood has a way of sending real shivers up and down your spine.
Just when Stevens and his achy 50-year-old knees were resigned to riding in contrived races and getting to act all crotchety on TV, HBO abruptly pulled the plug on their series "Luck" and Stevens was thrust back into the real world again, which meant sitting behind a microphone and analyzing races and looking at other jockeys hop aboard good horses right in front of him. He could practically reach out and touch them.
Finally, the urge to get back in the saddle proved too great and Stevens decided to embark on the unthinkable—a riding comeback, this time on real-life horses in real-life races.
But at his age and being away from riding for seven years, could the Hall of Fame jockey land the kind of mounts and ride in the kind of races he had been used to for so many years? Well, like an aardvark sniffing out a colony of ants, Stevens proved he could still sniff out good horses, and after a frustrating run of second-place finishes, here he is winning stakes and landing on, not one, but two promising Derby horses in Tiz the Truth, who broke his maiden by 7 3/4 lengths going a mile at Santa Anita Park for trainer Bob Baffert, and Proud Strike, who he rides in the Feb. 23 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds.
"Getting ready to turn 50 years old, I knew I was going to be under the microscope; you're always under the microscope in this sport, regardless of what you did the day before, let alone seven years earlier," Stevens said on a national teleconference. "I started thinking about this midway through last summer and I had a plan I put in place and tried to execute it. I really didn't know how things were going to turn out and what the reception was going to be. And it's been overwhelming and unexpected. Every race I ride in is a gift and I'm taking every race as a gift.
"I'm just honored to be back riding the type of horses for the people that I'm riding for. To get a call (from Steve Asmussen) to come in and ride a colt like Proud Strike in the Risen Star is beyond my biggest dreams."
Stevens said he watched all of Proud Strike's races and talked to Asmussen's assistant Scott Blasi even before the colt broke his maiden. Asmussen had sent Blasi a photo of Proud Strike laying down in his stall and taking a nap and said, "This is what I want a colt doing just before he runs."
Stevens liked Proud Strike's first two races, in which he finished third sprinting, and then second stretching out to two turns. But it was the colt's third start that really impressed him.
"His maiden breaker was huge," Stevens said. "He won by 7 1/2 lengths and was well within himself sitting just off the pace. He's taken great steps forward with every race and when I got the phone call I was pretty excited. If he takes another huge step off that maiden breaker, then it's good enough."
Stevens said he talked to fellow Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay about his comeback, but his biggest influence was his brother Scott, who rides at Turf Paradise.
"He told me, 'Man, if you're feeling it, what else are you going to do? Just go ahead and do it.' I also talked to Pat Day and Jerry Bailey about it and they saw that I was 100% into this. The last thing I wanted was people thinking, 'Oh, here he goes again. What kind of show is he putting on now?' I just didn't want this to be a carnival. I wanted people to know I was serious about this comeback, and that being a shadow of what I once was wasn't good enough. I wanted to be better than I was the last five years I was riding. And I have to be honest, I was riding in a lot of pain those last three or four years. And pain takes a big toll on you."
Stevens' problems had begun in 2003 when he was involved in a horrific spill aboard Storming Home in the Arlington Million (gr. IT) and he hadn't fully recuperated from his injuries when he returned to riding. In hindsight, he regrets not taking six or seven months off. That injury eventually led to his premature retirement.
"The biggest regret an athlete can have is announcing your retirement when you don't fully mean it," Stevens said.
Stevens' biggest dilemma now may be deciding what to do if Tiz the Truth and/or Proud Strike, or any other talented 3-year-old he winds up riding, makes it to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with a legitimate shot to win. Stevens works for NBC, providing analysis of all the big races, especially the Triple Crown events.
"I feel fortunate to be part of the NBC family; it's not an easy family to get into, and once a member always a member," Stevens said. "I've had talks with our producer Rob Hyland, and if I think I actually have a legitimate chance to win the Kentucky Derby, I'm going to be out there on horseback and NBC will be riding with me. I don't want to put the cart in front of the horse, but I'm very optimistic and I have the support of NBC.
"I don't think people realize the prep work that goes into a production like the Kentucky Derby or even the prep races, with all the meetings and rehearsals. It's not just one day of racing, it's a whole week of preparation. The show is scripted, but we usually wind up throwing the script out halfway through the show, because you never know what's going to happen in horse racing. It would be almost impossible to focus on riding in the Kentucky Derby and also prepare for a worldwide telecast. You have to do one or the other, and I would have to know either way at least a month before the Derby.
"In racing, you learn to keep all your options open leading up to the first Saturday in May. In 1995 I won the Santa Anita Derby with Larry the Legend, who I thought was going to be the favorite for the Derby. He wound up getting hurt and never ran again and I wound up picking up Thunder Gulch and won the Derby anyway."
When Stevens began his extensive fitness program in Seattle, he weighed 133 pounds and he's now down to 114. Between his nutrition program and his daily workouts, he feels he is fitter now than he's ever been in his career.
There is still some bitterness involved with the short-notice cancellation of "Luck" during the actual filming of Season Two, but Stevens, despite the grief suffered by him and everyone associated with the show, admits he probably would not be back in the saddle right now if the show had not been cancelled.
"The show had kind of given me my fix," he said. "I felt like I was back in the game riding races, and when that disappeared, there was something lacking."
Well, that something is back in his life, and this time there are no scripts and re-takes. The thrill is back ... and it's real.
"I'm very respectful of the reception I've gotten," Stevens said. "And I'm extremely thankful for the opportunity people have given me."