Gary Stevens profile:
1997 — Inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
1998 — Received Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding jockey.
Triple Crown victories — Kentucky Derby: Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch (1995), Silver Charm (1997); Preakness Stakes — Silver Charm (1997), Point Given (2001), Oxbow (2013); Belmont Stakes — Thunder Gulch (1994), Victory Gallop (1998), Point Given (2001).
His nine Santa Anita Derby victories stand as a record.
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Gary Stevens has already been inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame and ridden more than 5,000 winners — nine in Triple Crown races and 18 Breeders Cup races — just to name a few of the many honors earned during his career as a jockey that began more than three decades ago.
So, what can he possibly do for an encore? Never mind working as a broadcaster and actor, or even relaxing in retirement. Instead, the legendary jockey decided to hit the comeback trail this year to compete at 50 years young.
Stevens was on hand Tuesday night for a Breeders’ Cup Holiday Party held at the Carson Valley Inn, where he reflected on his achievements of the past. In a sport that is physically demanding and potentially dangerous — given the challenge of riding a horse at speeds up to 45 mph — this 5-foot-4 tall athlete’s present prospects appear as bright as ever. After all, Stevens won his third Preakness in May aboard Oxbow, and on Nov. 2 won his first Breeders’ Cup Classic in a photo finish aboard Mucho Macho. In a stop on Monday before arriving in Minden, he was in Tucson, Ariz., to receive the Big Sport of Turfdom Award from the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters of America.
What does Stevens consider his biggest achievement?
“My biggest achievement was being away for seven years and coming back and winning the Classic this year and the Preakness,” he replied. “It’s (comeback) probably been better than anyone expected, including myself. As far as numbers go, people keeping score, it’s the best year of my life.
In fact, Stevens celebrated his 50th birthday with a ride on March 6.
“I did ride,” he said. “With my comeback, no one really mentioned my age. They mentioned seven years off the bench, but then March 6, 2013 seemed to be a magical number that everyone said, ‘Ah, he’s 50. He can’t do it anymore. So it gave me a little boost on my birthday to do a little more for the 50-plus people out there.”
Why did he decide to try a comeback at age 50? It wasn’t for fame or fortune, or even to boost his numbers. After all, Stevens said he surpassed the 5,000-win plateau in 2005, including international wins not recognized by Equibase. His win total is now 5,070 and counting.
“I wasn’t really trying to prove anything. I had a question that, ‘Can somebody come back at this age and perform at a top level,” said Stevens, who served as a broadcaster for NBC Sports and HRTV during his retirement from racing. “As a journalist, I think I did it as a journalist wanting to interview somebody and asking, ‘Can you do this?’ I just thought, ‘I’m the best person to interview. Let’s see if I can do it.’ And it’s been a pretty good interview.”
After announcing his retirement in 2005 Stevens tried acting in addition to his work as a television racing analyst. He had already appeared in the 2003 film “Seabiscuit” and later was in the HBO television series “Luck.”
Stevens described his role as George “Iceman” Woolf in “Seabiscuit” as a special experience.
“It really was,” he said. “I’d known about George Woolf since I was about 14 years old. There’s a restaurant in Arcadia called the Derby Restaurant that to this day is still my favorite restaurant in the world. I’ve spent time up in what was his office back in the day, so it’s sort of a special relationship with somebody who passed long ago.”
Woolf, the jockey who rode Seabiscuit to victory in the historic 1938 duel against War Admiral, died at age 36 in 1946 after taking a fall at Santa Anita. Fittingly, in 1996 Stevens received the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in recognition of his lifetime achievement.
Stevens rode his first thoroughbred winner for his dad at 16 in 1979 at Les Bois Park in Idaho and later dropped out of school after his junior year at Capital High School in Boise, Idaho. He was also an accomplished wrestler at Capital, and interestingly enough, wrestling brought him to Northern Nevada at Christmas time in 1979 to compete at the high-powered Sparks Invitational — where he won a gold medal in the 105-pound weight class.
“It was intimidating because I was facing kids from California, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho,” he recalled.
There are parallels between the two sports, Stevens observed.
“It’s identical. Take no prisoners,” he said, describing the mindset of the two sports. “The only difference there is, in the sport I do now versus wrestling, I have a partner I can rely on. In wrestling, once you’re out on the mat, it’s all you and how much hard work you’ve put in. You can’t blame anybody other than yourself at the end of the day.
“Obviously it’s had a big impact on my life. When I’m going out to ride in one of my big races, a lot of my influence is what I thought about before I walked out on the mat.”
Just don’t compare his comeback to those of Brett Favre in football and George Foreman in boxing.
“I choose just to be me,” Stevens said, smiling.
Then again, he has taken time during the current NFL season to admire the work of another legendary athlete — Peyton Manning.
“The greatest thing I’ve watched this year is Peyton Manning,” Stevens said. “I sit in my recliner at home and watch him pick apart these kids. He may not have the same athletic abilities that he had, but he sees stuff before it happens. And that’s what I try to do … see it before it happens.
Then again, it just so happens Stevens grew up in a home where the Denver Broncos were the team to watch.
“We had two choices being from Boise, Idaho, since there is no pro team; you were either a Seattle Seahawks fan or a Denver Broncos,” he said, smiling. “My mom lived and died by the Broncos, and she hated Peyton Manning, until he put on that orange jersey.”
Stevens doesn’t need to look at any numbers to confirm the belief he is better than ever — in at least one regard.
“I think I’m probably better mentally,” Stevens said. “Definitely not physically. I would love to have the physical gifts I had when I was 20-something. I would say, probably at 33, I was at the top of my game, physically, but not mentally yet. And now, at 50, I’m as good as I ever was.”
Stevens dismisses the notion that senior athletes don’t heal as quickly as they used to.
“If you take care of yourself and if you’re physically fit, yes, you do,” he said. “If we allow ourselves to become lazy and lethargic, the body takes advantage of it. If you work your body out harder, it will take everything you can give it.
“There’s this view, especially here in America, that once we hit a certain age we’re supposed to grow old. You know, limp around a little bit, have the grandkid on your knee, celebrate Christmas and sit there while they take your boots off. I’m a grandfather right now and I take my own boots off,” said Stevens, adding a second grandchild is expected to arrive in March.
Does he still have many years of racing left?
“I don’t know about that,” Stevens said. “I take every day as a gift, and when it ends, it ends.”