By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing
When Gary Stevens announced early last year that he was coming out of retirement for a second time to resume his riding career, it seemed implausible.
He had twice been forced to the sidelines by agonizing knee issues that would not quit. He was attempting to overcome a layoff of seven years. And, hey, how many 50-year-old grandfathers do you know who can still compete at an elite level?
The answer: At least one.
Birthdate: March 6, 1963
Birthplace: Caldwell, Idaho
Family: wife, Angie; children, Ashley, T.C.,
Stevens added to his legend with a 2013 campaign that exceeded his wildest dreams. He scored an upset victory aboard Oxbow in the Preakness for his third win in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. He triumphed astride Beholder in the Distaff and Mucho Macho Man in the Classic as he turned the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park into a personal playground for a middle-aged man.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Stevens, “but 2013 was unexpected.”
Stevens never doubted himself. He was unsure whether owners and trainers would entrust their finest horses to him. Seven years is a lot of rust to knock off when riders must have a clock in their heads as reliable as Big Ben and be able to make decisions that determine races in a millisecond.
“I did not expect the opportunities that were afforded to me,” he said. “I thought we could capitalize if we were afforded those opportunities.”
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas was one of the first to approach Stevens, telling him about a promising 3-year-old in his barn. Oxbow disappointed both of them when he ran sixth for Stevens in a Kentucky Derby that did not unfold the way they wanted it to. But everything went their way as they benefitted from an unpressured pace in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness to give Stevens his ninth Triple Crown victory -- three in each leg.
A grateful Lukas called it a Hall of Fame ride, and it was as heady as they come.
“In these classic races, you don’t give up anything you get for free,” Stevens explained afterward. “They gave a free three-quarters of a mile.”
GARY STEVENS THROUGH THE YEARS
Stevens enhanced his reputation as a money rider in the Breeders’ Cup with signature victories to close each of the two days of international competition. Beholder was a sight to behold as she rolled by 4 ¼ lengths to present him with his third victory in the Distaff. He added the only major race that was missing from his sensational resume when Mucho Macho Man lived up to his name by digging deep to hold off surging Will Take Charge by a nose. The photo finish showed Declaration of War was another head back after his dramatic late rush.
“I always said the one race I was missing in my career was the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Stevens said. “I didn’t think I’d get one. I didn’t think it would come in 2013.”
A finalist for the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey, Stevens finished the year with 69 victories from 383 starts for earnings of $11,910,748.
Stevens did enough to be voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1997. Yet his hunger to win big races never ends. “That’s what drives me,” he said.
He believes he can continue to play on the grand stage as long as his career is managed properly to ease the pain in his knees. He is breaking the season into quarters. “We will plan these things out to have me fresh for certain events on the calendar,” he said.
Mucho Macho Man is returning. So is Beholder.
“I’m getting on about six 3-year-olds right now that can win the Derby,” Stevens noted, sounding as insatiable as ever.
STEVENS WITH WIFE, ANGIE, AND DAUGHTER MADISON