Determined Stevens Heads to Preakness

Racing

Gary Stevens with Firing Line's owner Arnold Zetcher. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

BALTIMORE – The overriding question revolving around the 140th Preakness Stakes involves whether Firing Line can find a way to make up one length, the grudging amount he lost by to American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby.

The answer: One length seems awfully insignificant given everything that Gary Stevens, the rider of Firing Line, has overcome during an illustrious career that doctors once thought impossible.

He was told it was highly unlikely he would be able to participate in any sport when he was diagnosed as a boy with Perthes disease, a degenerative hip condition, and required to wear a brace for 19 months.

The native of Caldwell, Idaho became a jockey in 1979 and gained the first of his nine victories in Triple Crown races – he boasts three in each leg – when he got the filly Winning Colors home first on the front end in the 1988 Kentucky Derby. The victories and earnings piled up so furiously from that point on that he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1997, the fourth-youngest rider to be so honored.

“I think he’s one of the top riders anywhere around the world,” said Simon Callaghan, trainer of Firing Line. “I think that’s going to stand us in really good stead in this type of race. He’s been there and done it. We’re pretty confident having Gary on board, for sure.”

Stevens, a 52-year-old with three grandchildren, returned from a second retirement, one that lasted more than seven years, to all but lull the Preakness field to sleep in upsetting the middle jewel of the Triple Crown with Oxbow in 2013. Later that year, he tacked on his ninth and 10th Breeders’ Cup wins when Beholder prevailed in the Distaff before Mucho Macho Man displayed his grit in giving Stevens his first Classic triumph.

When Stevens underwent a replacement of his right knee last July 25, it was a mere 91 days before he was exercising horses and gearing up for another comeback. Stevens’ wife, Angie, said of his attitude through the grueling rehabilitation process: “It was never ‘if.’ It was ‘when.’”

Those who ride against Stevens are keenly aware of his almost legendary level of determination and how much that means to his success. “I’m sure as soon as the Derby was over and he was able to catch his breath, he was already on to the next one and thinking what he could do to turn the tables,” said Richard Migliore, a retired jockey turned racing analyst.

The answer may be as simple as persuading Firing Line to change leads, something the colt failed to do for the only time in his six-race career in the Derby. “He was beyond frustrated because he thought that could have been the difference easily,” said Angie.

According to Stevens, he gave the 3-year-old several cues to change leads – akin to shifting hands with a bulky suitcase - at Churchill Downs. He is confident the issue will turn into a non-issue in the Preakness. “There are a few things I can do to help him be more cognizant of it coming into the stretch,” he said.

Migliore suspects that Firing Line reacted to a frenetic Derby atmosphere that is like no other. “When they turn for home, they get hit with a wall of noise,” he said. “I imagine that’s what led to the horse not changing leads. I’m sure in the Preakness he’ll get back to changing properly.”

The shorter distance of the Preakness and a favorable change in post positions that has American Pharoah on the rail and Firing Line on the extreme outside in the field of eight represent other encouraging developments for Stevens. He could not be more amped for the rematch.

 “He’s pretty determined to show everybody he’s on the real deal,” Angie said.

$1.5-million Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes
Saturday, Pimlico Race Course, Post time 6:18 p.m. ET
1 3/16 miles, dirt, 3-year-olds
T.V.: NBC 4:30 p.m. ET

PP

Horse

Jockey

Trainer

Owner

M-L

1

American Pharoah

Victor Espinoza

Bob Baffert

Zayat Stables

4-5

2

Dortmund

Martin Garcia

Bob Baffert

Kaleem Shah

7-2

3

Mr. Z

Corey Nakatani

D. Wayne Lukas

Calumet Farm

20-1

4

Danzig Moon

Julien Leparoux

Mark Casse

John Oxley

15-1

5

Tale of Verve

Joel Rosario

Dallas Stewart

Charles Fipke

30-1

6

Bodhisattva

Trevor McCarthy

Jose Corrales

Jose Corrales

20-1

7

Divining Rod

Javier Castellano

Arnaud Delacour

Lael Stables

12-1

8

Firing Line

Gary Stevens

Simon Callaghan

Arnold Zetcher

4-1

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