|Photo by Terri Cage|
By Emily White
For most aging athletes, a successful comeback from retirement is merely a pipe dream. That pipe dream became reality for Gary Stevens.
After his retirement in late 2005, it seemed that the veteran jockey had nothing left to prove. Only one race was missing from his impressive resume of wins - the prestigious Breeders' Cup Classic - but even that proved no blemish against his record as a whole. After nearly three decades of riding Thoroughbreds, Stevens had won a solid handful of three-year-old classics and Breeders' Cup races and earned his way into racing's Hall of Fame. What more could he do?
There must have been some itch that Stevens still yearned to scratch.
He became an actor and a news personality, starring in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit as champion jockey George Woolf and providing insight for NBC and HRTV as an analyst. Horses were what Stevens knew best. His eyes and smile lit up as he discussed race tactics and past performances with his fellow broadcasters. The former rider was approaching fifty – middle-aged by most human standards, but nearly twice the age of the majority of the jockey colony. Stevens was once the best in the business. . . Could he be considered so again?
On HRTV, Stevens announced his comeback. It was January 3, 2013, and the racing world was set ablaze by this news. Three days later, he was back in the saddle again, and nearly a week after that, he won his first horse race in years. His mount was a filly named Branding; Stevens had guided her home to win her first race. Now, the racing world smiled. The veteran rider's first step was nothing short of confident.
Week after week, he picked up winning mounts like clockwork. With Stevens firmly in the irons, Slim Shadey came home to win his second San Marcos Stakes, giving his rider the first graded stakes win of his comeback. The jockey's shrewd mind was a lethal weapon against his competitors, some of whom were half his age. Wisdom gained from his long stint at the top level soon paid off for Stevens.
In mid-spring, he was paired with a rambunctious colt named Oxbow. Trained by fellow veteran D. Wayne Lukas, Oxbow had run away from the field in the LeComte Stakes and finished a narrow second to stablemate Will Take Charge in the Rebel, and carried Stevens to his first Kentucky Derby start in many years. The duo finished a commendable fifth behind fresh-faced Joel Rosario and Orb. Caked in mud, they returned to the homestretch with heads held high, Stevens' blue eyes bright with euphoria.
The Derby would not be their final word.
Many favored Orb to win the Preakness Stakes and carry the hopes of a Triple Crown to the Belmont Stakes. Instead, Baltimore played host to a glorious day for the comeback kid. Just before the Preakness, he guided Oxbow's stablemate Skyring to a victory in the Dixie Stakes. Still buzzing from that victory, he broke well with Oxbow and set a measured pace. Slow and steady wins the race. . . And with enough energy to hold off the closers, Stevens geared his colt down as they crossed the line first in the Preakness Stakes.
It had been 45 years since Calumet Farm had won a classic race. Oxbow not only ended that historic drought; he ushered in a new era for Calumet, which had been purchased some years previously by businessman Brad Kelley. The 2013 Preakness was both Lukas and Stevens' first victory in a Triple Crown event in more than a decade.
That leggy bay colt sparked what some have called the greatest comeback in sports history. As spring faded into summer, and summer into fall, Stevens kept winning. Horses like Byrama, Marketing Mix, and She's a Tiger added grade one victories to his already sterling record. He entered the Breeders' Cup World Championships in the saddles of strong horses, some of them favorites. With the whole world watching, Stevens was well-prepared to make headlines.
On Breeders' Cup Friday, he and Beholder turned back the challenge of Royal Delta and others to run away with the Breeders' Cup Distaff. It was his first Distaff win in 15 years and put Beholder firmly in contention with her Eastern rival, Princess of Sylmar, for an Eclipse Award. After being disqualified aboard the stretch-weaving She's a Tiger in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies on Breeders' Cup Saturday, he climbed aboard several horses, including the long-striding Mucho Macho Man in the Classic.
Mucho Macho Man was a five year-old and had taken some time to grow into himself. He had finished second to the front-running Fort Larned in 2012's Classic and was back for revenge. As Stevens and his bay stallion sat off a contentious pace, the racing world followed along with bated breath. He pushed his mount to the lead at the turn, but in deep stretch faced strong threats from the tenacious Declaration of War and the fast-closing Will Take Charge. People trembled at the exciting finish; eyes were glued to the toteboard or a television as the photo finish sign flashed on. Who had won the Classic?
The sign flashed up. The number 6 glowed brightly atop the others. The hole in Gary Stevens' resume had finally been filled. A Breeders' Cup Classic was his at last.
The win was extremely popular to all who watched. Winning trainer Kathy Ritvo, face full of emotion, ran towards her horse and exchanged heartfelt words with Stevens, whose joy was plastered on his face for all to see. The winner's circle was teeming with lively people; it seemed to represent all that was wonderful about horse racing. Cheers for Mucho Macho Man and his connections rang through the early evening air. Aboard his Classic champion, Stevens sat as proud as a king.
There were surely some voices in January that scoffed at the idea of a middle-aged rider climbing back into the saddle again, no matter how many great races he had once ridden in. Velazquez, Rosario and Castellano, among others, were comfortable in their positions atop the jockey ranks, and new faces inhabited the winner's circle as well. But it was as if Stevens had never stopped riding racehorses; he dismounted at Belmont in 2005 and remounted in 2013 as if only days and not years had passed.
With good horses, perseverance, and certainly plenty of guts, Gary Stevens achieved what some had thought to be impossible.