““I got balls and guts,” Gary Stevens tweeted on the evening of Feb. 23. The barb was directed at an armchair critic who blasted the legendary jockey's ride in that day's Risen Star Stakes — at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, in New Orleans. Stevens’ mount, Proud Strike, finished eighth in the race, and some fans in the blogosphere blamed the rider. Stevens felt compelled to respond directly to one of the more vocal detractors.”
Few would argue with Gary Stevens’ declaration. He has competed in more than 27,000 Thoroughbred races worldwide over a 34- year span, winning more than 5,000 and frequently putting himself in danger in the process. Over the years, he’s often tried to squeeze his horse through a tight opening, or pin a rival down on the inside — whatever it takes to win.
Gary Stevens has guts and balls. He has 'em to spare.
Oh, yes. Gary Stevens has guts and balls. He has ‘em to spare.
He’s also got an intense desire to show the world that he’s got them. And should you challenge him, as the Twitter pundit did, he's going to want to fight you.
“That was his wallet talking,” Stevens theorizes from a bar stool in the basement of his Louisville, Ky., home. “And I thought, ‘This imbecile. What gives him the right because his fat ass was talking? He’s probably never rolled a bowling ball — let alone rode a racehorse.’ I was feeling it.”
Still, why engage?
“Because I could,” he says.
Next comes a rhetorical question.
“You’re not going to take any shit out with somebody on the street, are you?” He pauses to wait for an answer that’s not expected. “I’m not either.
“I am who I am. And I’m proud of it.”
Stevens’ long history of not taking shit began when he was 7 years old and he was diagnosed with a rare hip disorder called Legg-Calve-Perthes syndrome. The condition, which can lead to severe degenerative arthritis if not detected in time, required that he wear a brace on his right leg for 18 months. He also had to wear a special shoe that elevated his left leg by two inches. The kids in his elementary school in Caldwell, Idaho, quickly pounced, calling his strange-looking footwear “Frankenstein’s shoe.” Stevens did not take kindly to the bullying.
“Whenever I was teased, my big brothers would say ‘Go kick their ass, man. Don’t take their shit.’ So I wouldn’t. I fought a lot. And I got to where I liked it.”
So thanks to his ailment, and the advice of his big brothers Scott (also a jockey) and Craig, Stevens acquired a fighter’s spirit. Throw in the work ethic that comes from growing up around racing — he grew up on a farm and his father Ron was a trainer — add guts and the balls, and you have the core of Gary Stevens. That is what he depends on now as the now 50-year-old jockey ends a seven-year retirement. He started racing again this past January, and later this week he will try to become one of the oldest riders ever to win the Kentucky Derby.
Stevens’ comeback has made him the man of the moment in Thoroughbred racing.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
An intense rainstorm is about to hit the picturesque Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., on the afternoon of Thursday, April 11. But for the moment, it is dry. The dark skies above, juxtaposed against the thick, green lawn of the paddock, give the old estate even more of a European feel than it already has. With its gray limestone brickwork and the Germanic-inspired architecture of the grandstand, all lovingly maintained, at times such as this Keeneland resembles an ancient castle. Here is a place where tradition reigns, a fitting setting for “The Sport of Kings” and for Gary Stevens, racing royalty, as he attempts to retake the throne.
Post time for the fourth race is approaching, one of only two that Stevens is riding on today’s nine-race card. He emerges from the jockeys' room and heads out to the walking ring, where, in a moment, he’ll get a leg up on Fast Bobbi J, a 4-year-old filly looking for her second career win from 15 starts.
His wife, Angie Athayde Stevens, and 3-year-old daughter Maddie have just flown to Kentucky from Los Angeles, and have decided to skip the races today to catch up on their rest. So Gary is left alone to glad-hand various people in the paddock. Both friends and strangers pull him this way and that. Everyone wants a quick hello, an autograph, a picture. Already in demand to begin with, thanks to his eight Triple Crown victories, several high-profile acting roles, and position as lead racing analyst on NBC, Stevens’ comeback has made him the man of the moment in Thoroughbred racing.
It has been like this almost from the start, when the championship wrestler dropped out of high school in 1979 to ride and came home a winner in his first race. Success came fast and, seemingly, easy. By the mid ‘80s he was getting rides in major stakes races, won his first Kentucky Derby in 1988 on the filly Winning Colors, and in 1993 became the youngest jockey to surpass $100 million in winnings. But that was a long time ago.
The rider is summoned by a young man in a dark suit, someone who really does need to speak with him. Matt Sims is the son of Fast Bobbi J’s Keeneland-based trainer Phil Sims, a 30-year veteran of the track, and his father’s chief assistant. He is visibly nervous about the fact that he is standing in for his father — giving pre-race instructions to one of the greatest riders of all time.
“The kid was shitting himself out in the paddock,” Stevens recalls afterward, laughing. “He was like ‘Oh my God!’ And he was kinda stuttering. He was like, ‘My dad didn’t make it, I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘No problem.’ I could tell he was really nervous.”
After a brief strategy session, Stevens climbs aboard Fast Bobbi J, and heads out for the post parade — where a sparse crowd of 7,224 awaits. This is not the norm at Keeneland — the grandstand is routinely packed even on weekdays. But on this day the threatening skies are enough to keep some people away.
Gary Stevens is locked in. Focused. Determined. The time for banter is over. His intense, blue eyes fix squarely on the starting gate. His face, once handsome enough to land him on People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” list, is slightly less inviting at this moment. His 5’4 frame sits still and steady atop Fast Bobbi J, matching the horses’ gait. This 10-minute trip from paddock to starting gate is the time where they become one.
Finally, Stevens and Fast Bobbi J are loaded into the gate. The imposing chestnut filly doesn’t like the tight quarters, though. She’s restless. And just as the gate opens, Fast Bobbi J, trying to reposition herself, is caught off guard, and misses a beat. While the rest of the field dashes away, she lags noticeably behind — spotting the field three lengths.
“My filly caused her own problem,” Stevens says later. “I felt her getting tense in there. And she was just on ready. She wanted out of that gate. She started hopping up and down. She was actually starting to rear up a little bit when they opened the gate. So she just lunged out, like in slow motion, and I was like ‘Motherfucker ...’”
The slow start forces Stevens to change his race tactics. Instead of staying on or close to the early lead, Stevens has Fast Bobbi J lay back, tucking her in toward the rail to save ground.
“I thought I was gonna be laying first or second, but the kid told me ‘Look. She needs to be ridden like a European horse — covered up, with horses in front of her to target.’ So when she missed the break, I said ‘Well, I’m here. Don’t rush up. Just sit and bide your time.’”
Fast Bobbi J remained in last place for roughly the first half of the 1 1/16-mile race. Then the filly decided she wanted to go and Stevens had no choice but to make his move. Quickly, they gained ground on the outside, and they struck the lead just prior to the stretch.
“I hit the lead too early,” Stevens says afterward. “She wanted to stop. She’s one of those that can only stay in front for so long.”
At the top of the stretch, Fast Bobbi J is on even terms with a filly called Keri Keri. Atop that runner is 28-year-old Joel Rosario — a budding superstar, just as Stevens was some 30 years ago. Rosario is closing in on the record for most wins ever by a jockey at the prestigious Keeneland spring meet, one he will break on April 25. Stevens is incredibly pumped. It is a golden opportunity for him to take the kid down, and show the doubters — and himself — that he’s still got it.
“Rosario’s the hottest thing around. And he’s known as one of the best finishers in the game now. So, when I came into the lane, and he was my target, I’m like ‘All right. Let’s see what ya got, kiddo.’ Good competitors … you don’t run from the challenge. That’s what makes you better.”
The two battle for a sixteenth of a mile — Stevens and Fast Bobbi J on the outside, Rosario and Keri Keri on the inside. They are virtually stride-for-stride. Neither horse, neither jockey, is giving an inch. It is a showdown, and the cagey veteran is giving the heralded phenom everything he can handle. He’s got the positional advantage — being on the outside. He’s holding his spot — not letting Rosario out and giving him room. Good, hard, clean race riding. Vintage Gary Stevens.
Finally, Stevens and Fast Bobbi J start to edge clear. Keri Keri, pushed harder, and perhaps a bit earlier than Rosario wanted, is quickly tiring, and fades with 100 yards to go. Fast Bobbi J outlasts another late challenger, and prevails by a nose.
Gary Stevens, for the first time since October of 2005, is a winner at Keeneland Race Course. His horse may not have been the best out of the gate, and she may have been struggling in the end, but Stevens’ early patience and late tenacity made the difference.
Horse and jockey slowly make their way to the winner’s circle, where Matt Sims is waiting.
“She made it tougher than she had to,” a smiling Stevens tells Sims, as the victorious parties assemble for the photo.
The kid no longer looks nervous. He’s now overcome with joy. He’s getting his picture taken with a racing icon, who, for his part, looks very much at home returning to the winner’s circle. But he only stays a moment. The best jockeys look ahead, and not back.
Photo Credit: Penelope P. Miller/America’s Best Racing
Her nametag reads “Jill Babe,” and she looks just like one would imagine someone named Jill Babe to look like. She is a little heavyset, in her 40s, with graying hair on the short side and a good-hearted, seemingly permanent smile plastered on her face. Jill Babe, who operates the grill in the jockeys’ cafeteria, prepares what little food the jockeys at Keeneland Race Course eat.
Jill Babe steps out from behind the kitchen counter, and ambles her way over to Stevens, carrying a poster that she’d like for him to autograph. Stevens, fresh off his victory aboard Fast Bobbi J, and known as an accommodating signer to begin with, happily obliges.
“My man said you took good care of him yesterday,” Stevens informs Jill Babe, as he opens the poster and places it on the table. “Had some good chili.”
“I love him,” Jill Babe responds, with a distinct Kentucky drawl — one that gives the word “him” a couple of extra syllables. “He was real nice.”
“Do you know who he works for? Nick Nolte. He’s his personal assistant.”
“SHUT UP!” cries Jill Babe.
Stevens nods in the affirmative.
“I met him when we were doing “Luck,”” Stevens says, referring to the horse racing-themed HBO drama series in which he played jockey Ronnie Jenkins, a past-his-prime rider battling drug and alcohol addiction.
“Do you know that I never missed an episode?” Jill Babe asks. Jill Babe was part of “Luck”’s small but vocal fan base, who mourned the show’s premature demise in 2012. It was canceled shortly after the second season had begun filming following another death of a racehorse during production — the third equine fatality during the series’ run. Some skeptics, however, believe that this was just a convenient excuse for HBO executives to pull the plug on a show that had failed to attract a mass audience.
Regardless, Jill Babe was devastated to learn about “Luck”’s cancellation. “I was so upset, I cried. I loved that show!”
Stevens offers to give Jill Babe a copy of the complete series on DVD. She happily takes him up on it.
“Boy, they made you cuss a lot, didn’t they?”
“Yeah,” Stevens says, with a mischievous grin. He’s used more profanity in the last 10 minutes than Jill Babe probably has in the last 10 years.
She thanks Stevens and returns to her post, leaving him to reflect on the last days of “Luck.” He wistfully recalls the cast gathering to watch the footage of the unaired second season premiere.
“We all got together, went over to one of the writer’s house. Myself, Nick, Kevin Dunn, John Ortiz, Jason Gedrick. We all got together and watched this thing. And when it ended, we went out on the patio. And there was just dead silence.”
The wound is still fresh. Stevens refuses to go into detail about the cancellation of the show. But he does have a parting shot for PETA — the organization that was banging the drum the loudest for the show’s termination following the last death of a horse involved in production on March 13, 2012. PETA levied a number of damning charges against the producers of "Luck," claiming that they were administering various drugs to the horses on set, and sometimes subjecting them to race twice in one day. Stevens categorically denies all these charges.
“PETA … went out of bounds. They said some things that were flat out lies — that were unfounded. They are a corrupt organization.”
“PETA … went out of bounds. They said some things that were flat out lies — that were unfounded. But because of social media, it went viral. They are a corrupt organization.”
“Luck” was Stevens’ second foray into the acting world. His first came in 2003, when he portrayed the famed jockey George Woolf in the movie “Seabiscuit.” Between the two high-profile roles, and his seven-year retirement from racing, scores of people know Gary Stevens not as a three-time Kentucky Derby winning rider, but as the guy from “Seabiscuit” and “Luck” who made one hell of a convincing jockey.
The typecasting got to Stevens a little bit. He doesn’t rule out future Hollywood work going forward, but he’d like a chance to demonstrate his range.
“I [don’t] want to play just a jockey. That was the thing about the character I played,” Stevens says, referring to Ronnie Jenkins, his role in “Luck.” “He wasn’t just a jockey. He had a lot of different sides to him. He was fun to play.”
Given time to reflect, he is content with the way things played out with “Luck.” If the show were still on the air, it is doubtful that Stevens would be back on the racetrack.
“I was having a ball and stuff. But it’s probably a blessing that it did shut down. That’s what really kick-started me.”
Eighteen wins from his first 124 starters in his first few months since coming back have helped show that Gary Stevens is where he belongs.
He might have to tone down the language, though. He’s in Jill Babe’s house now. He’s not acting anymore.
“Hey, J.D.,” Stevens says, greeting two-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Jerry D. Bailey, one of his great rivals of yesteryear. Bailey is hanging out in the kitchen, preparing for a Saturday NBC telecast which will originate from Keeneland. He will assume Stevens’ position as lead analyst on the broadcast — a role in which Stevens has served since 2006.
“You look good, man. You really do,” Bailey says.
“Thank you. I’m having fun, man,” Stevens responds.
“But I'm still ... getting close to Derby, the game face is coming back. My temper's getting up,” he adds with a chuckle.
Saturday, April 13 is an important day on the Kentucky Derby trail. Stevens is heading to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., to ride a horse called Oxbow, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, in the Arkansas Derby. That race, in recent years, has become one of the most crucial Triple Crown preps. Since 2004, horses that have contested the Arkansas Derby have gone on to win seven of 27 Triple Crown races. This tally doesn’t include a number of narrow misses, including the two memorable second-place finishes notched by the gutsy colt Bodemeister in last year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Indeed, it is a race that features the cream of the 3-year-old crop.
Stevens and Bailey discuss race strategy for a bit, before Bailey is asked, tongue-in-cheek, when his comeback will be.
“This is it!” he says, laughing.
“He’s still enjoying the pizzas and stuff,” jokes a jealous Stevens, who, like all jockeys, watches his diet and frequently spends hours at a time in the “hot box” to make his riding weight of 115 lbs.
“I don’t think there’s any way I could lose the weight,” Bailey says. “I’m a bigger frame than Gary.”
Historically, the riding profession has been plagued by alcohol abuse, and on occasion, Stevens was not immune to overindulgence.
“I didn’t think I could either,” Stevens admits. “And that was part of it. I went through this just to see if I could do it. I feel so much better now,” he says, the result of a strict six-week fitness program he put himself through in Redmond, Washington last November, and a new diet, which Stevens says did not include alcohol. That self-imposed restriction might surprise those who’ve known him over the years. Historically, the riding profession has been plagued by alcohol abuse, and on occasion, Stevens was not immune to overindulgence. (Neither was Bailey, who wrote about his own struggles with alcohol in his 2005 memoir, “Against The Odds.”) But for Stevens, a comeback, at his age, demands discipline. That meant no alcohol.
Stevens brings up his win aboard Fast Bobbi J from earlier in the afternoon. He mentions the top of the stretch confrontation with Rosario, and compares it to his many wars over the years with Bailey.
“When we were riding against each other, you [brought] out the best in me. And I think vice versa.”
Bailey nods, and the two rivals share a moment of admiration. He wishes Stevens luck and says his goodbyes. The walk down memory lane is over. Stevens is off to Arkansas to try to make some new ones.
Little Maddie Stevens directs her father’s attention toward a TV in the Keeneland kitchen that is showing the final round of the Masters golf tournament.
“Daddy, look!” she says, while pointing at the golfers. “That’s what you used to do.”
Daddy smiles. The mid-teens handicapper has no desire to return to the course full time. Overall, he’s very happy with his comeback — so far. He’s getting mostly quality mounts in big races. In March, Stevens made a trip to Dubai to contest the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Though he finished out of the money, Stevens’ mere presence in the race served notice that he is still thought of as one of the best jockeys in the world, despite his long hiatus.
Still, the last 48 hours haven’t gone terribly well. Stevens has just returned from Arkansas, where, despite winning an undercard race, he had something of a disappointing day. Oxbow finished fifth to Overanalyze. Throw in an 0-for-3 on Sunday’s Keeneland card, and a little comic relief from his daughter is quite welcome.
Father, daughter, and mother make their way to the family vehicle — a Hummer. Gary drives, Angie and Maddie sit in the back. Gary pulls out of the parking lot, and assumes a spot in the long line waiting to leave Keeneland. This gives him a chance to reflect on yesterday’s race at Oaklawn.
Stevens likes Oxbow, despite his lackluster run in the race, and despite the fact that, according to Stevens, he’s somewhat atypical of a Lukas horse in that he is not physically imposing. He’s well put together, but not big. Although the colt is registered as a bay, some observers, including Stevens, view him as a gray. He just doesn’t fit the classic image of a Thoroughbred — he wouldn’t have been cast in “Luck” — and won’t stand out in the Derby post parade. But then, neither did Smarty Jones, a tiny little bit of a horse who won the Derby and Preakness in 2004. As Thoroughbreds go, although Oxbow doesn’t look like much, and he isn’t physically gifted, he generally performs.
Only Oxbow’s run yesterday didn’t evoke memories of Smarty Jones — he didn’t race to the level that Stevens expected. But Stevens believes that’s not all the horse’s fault. He thinks that part of the reason for Oxbow’s mediocre run was the poor condition of the racing surface at Oaklawn.
“It was a plow field,” he says. “I’ve been on ranches that were better than that track. I’ve ridden on farm tracks that were in better condition than that thing was by the time we ran [the Arkansas Derby].”
Beyond the condition of the track, Stevens knows there are other reasons Oxbow didn’t fire at Oaklawn. One of them is pilot error.
“He was a horse that was pissed off, after the race. I think he was upset with me that he didn’t get the running style he wanted. He’s a very free running horse. I took his best weapon away from him. I know that now.”
He lost, but he learned something about the horse, something he hopes to take to Churchill Downs.
The decision to take Oxbow out of his comfort zone was premeditated. Oxbow, by virtue of his strong performances in some early season races, virtually was guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby field no matter the outcome of the Arkansas Derby. So Stevens decided to experiment, and see if he could win from off the pace — a luxury only a jockey like Stevens could risk. But Oxbow fought Stevens’ game plan. He lost, but he learned something about the horse, something he hopes to take to Churchill Downs.
“We broke, and he was relaxed enough,” he says. “And about 50 yards before the [first] turn, he tried to grab me and take off, and go up to the lead.”
A night’s sleep has changed things for Gary Stevens. His reaction in the immediate aftermath of the race was that Oxbow wasn’t good enough to compete with the top-level horses. But now, he has come up with enough reasons to account for Oxbow’s subpar performance. He wants another chance with the horse.
“Immediately after the race, I said ‘This isn’t the right horse,’” says Stevens. “But oddly enough, somebody on Twitter said ‘Remember Thunder Gulch,’” referencing the 1995 Kentucky Derby winner that he rode (and D. Wayne Lukas trained). Like Oxbow, Thunder Gulch was highly touted going into his final Kentucky Derby prep, and then flopped. The horse came back three weeks later, completely overlooked, and won the Derby. The same social media that antagonized him earlier has now provided some useful perspective. Stevens is experienced enough — and confident enough — to realize it.
He remembers Thunder Gulch, how he sat just a few lengths off of the lead most of the way around the Churchill Downs oval, before steadily creeping up and ultimately pouncing with a quarter of a mile to go. And now Thunder Gulch is why he wouldn’t mind another go-round with Oxbow. In fact, he’s starting to like the idea more and more.
He turns onto the highway, and continues the one-hour ride to Louisville — driving right past a golf course without a glance — probably thinking of letting Oxbow run.
The injuries finally caught to up to him in 2005 when he walked away from the sport.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
“Ah, shit,” Gary Stevens says, as he spots a Kentucky state trooper’s car parked to his left, while making his way down I-64. “I just got nailed.”
Two officers are standing outside of the vehicle, chatting with each other and soaking in the sun. One of them appears to have a radar gun in his hands. Stevens keeps his eyes on the rearview mirror. He’s watching their movements carefully.
“Did the cop pull out?” Angie asks, keeping focused on her daughter, who is rapidly tiring in the seat next to her.
“Nah, but I was going way too fast.” He pauses, eyes still on the mirror. “But there were a lot of people … I’ve been keeping up with traffic,” he adds, hopefully.
In truth, Stevens does not deserve the ticket. The posted speed limit on this highway is 65 mph. Stevens has been flirting with 70, but hasn’t topped it.
The troopers do not appear to be sprinting into their car, and Stevens breathes a sigh of relief.
“They might’ve just been having a chat,” he says.
For a man who makes a living trying to find the fastest way around a racetrack, Gary Stevens is remarkably passive on the road. He’s spent most of this trip in the left lane, but hasn’t been desperate to get around a car directly in front of him that has been slowing him down.
“[I’m a] patient driver,” Stevens says, “Patient rider too, believe it or not. Patience wins more races than being a daredevil.”
It’s also safer. And safety is foremost on Stevens’ mind today. Two hours earlier, he nearly went down during some bumping in a turf race.
As Stevens rode down the stretch on Lil Bit O’Fun in the day’s seventh race, they made contact with another horse, and then collided with two other horses to his outside. Stevens lost all chance of winning the race, but stayed on his mount. However, Lil Bit O’Fun, all the other horses in the race, and all the jockeys safely crossed the finish line.
The incident could’ve ended in the hospital. But according to Stevens, the incident was entirely accidental. The initial contact, made by a horse called Destination and jockey Corey Lanerie, was not malicious.
“[Corey’s] horse was tiring a little bit, started to drift out, and I was just gonna float out with him as I went by. And when I made contact with Lanerie’s horse, the hind quarters, it turned his horse into me and caused a chain reaction.” Stevens says this without even the slightest hint of anger. “It happens.”
Accidental or not, Stevens recognizes how fortunate he is to have escaped injury.
“I feel like I just won a Grade 1,” he says, referring to Thoroughbred racing’s highest-level contest. “I dodged a bullet today. I’m going home in one piece.”
Days like this one force the rider to consider some of the potential ramifications to his comeback. Like most jockeys, Stevens has a long history of injuries. He’s suffered so many that he’s almost lost count. His right knee, in particular, has taken a beating.
“I’ve had 12 surgeries,” he says, referring to his right knee alone. “[And] I’ve had both shoulders reconstructed.” He’s also had three surgeries on his left knee, broken his collarbone more times than he can remember, and sustained a myriad of other nicks and bruises.
The injuries finally caught to up to him in 2005 when he walked away from the sport. Gary Stevens never really wanted to leave racing. But that bloated right knee, nearly twice the size of his left, and that oft-broken collarbone, and those reconstructed shoulders, they just wouldn’t let him go on at the time.
“There is a piece of my heart that would love to continue riding, but my body can’t take it anymore,” Stevens said in a press release at the time of his retirement. “The injuries I have sustained over the years have caught up with me.”
After seven years of healing, and seven years of the day-to-day monotony of life away from the racetrack, Stevens has gained a whole new perspective. Retirement, once non-negotiable, was no longer the only option.
As bad as Gary Stevens’ injury history is — he’s been relatively lucky, all things considered. At age 50, with his place in horse racing’s Hall of Fame already secure, (he was inducted in 1997 at age 34), does he need to risk permanent injury, or worse?
“It’s easy for me. I know it’s gonna happen. I hope it doesn’t happen. But chances are it is going to happen.
“But my wife, and my daughter, and my mom — my mom won’t watch a race. She’ll listen, but she won’t watch. And I’m sure that she’s sick right now, literally. That’s what’s harder on me. And that’s what took me so long to come back.”
It is telling that Gary Stevens, a man who seemingly fears nothing, feared the family ramifications of his decision to return to racing so much that he put off calling his parents until after the news became public.
“They were pissed off that I didn’t call ‘em first,” Stevens admits. “I avoided the phone call, absolutely.”
Many different theories have been offered as to why Gary Stevens truly decided to return to racing. But those who believe that he came back for the money would have trouble making that case after touring his suburban Louisville home, located in an exclusive development where his neighbors include, among others, University of Louisville football coach Charlie Strong. There is a small movie theater and a pool table in the basement. Complete with a bar, the space serves as the ultimate man cave. Upstairs, there is a big screen TV at the center of a lavishly furnished room. The kitchen is a showroom for custom appliances. From all outward appearances, Gary Stevens is not hurting for cash.
Many different theories have been offered as to why Gary Stevens truly decided to return to racing.
Trophy cases are present on both floors. Inside one are a few pieces of general sports memorabilia that were not won, but acquired. There is some space allotted for Angie, who was an accomplished swimmer in college. Mostly, however, the cases are filled with the scores of mementos amassed by Gary Stevens over the past three decades. One cabinet, nearest the kitchen, holds a number of the lesser prizes most jockeys would kill to have. According to Stevens, it’s hardly worth looking at.
“That’s nothing,” he says, pointing to a more centrally located case. “Check out my Derby trophies.” It’s clear what matters most. There is the Derby, and then everything else.
Stevens excuses himself. He’s off to his garage to give one of his dogs, a King Charles Spaniel, a haircut. This is how Gary Stevens kills time on this Monday, one of his two days off, as he waits for a phone call he is hoping to receive from D. Wayne Lukas.
Stevens is fairly certain he knows how the call will go, as he’s already spoken to Lukas once today. He expects that Lukas will officially give him the mount on Oxbow for the Kentucky Derby. Then his quest to become one of the oldest jockeys ever to win the historic race will intensify. Only Bill Shoemaker, at age 54 in 1986, won the Derby past the age of 50.
But there are other possibilities. Lukas could decide to put Stevens on his other Derby entrant, Will Take Charge, replacing that runner’s current jockey, Jon Court. He could also blow Stevens off completely. Were he to do that at this late stage of the game, with precious few unspoken for mounts left, Stevens likely would not secure a Derby ride. This last outcome is highly unlikely, but with Lukas, you just never know.
Gary Stevens has a long history with Lukas — most of it productive.
Like Stevens, Lukas is a horse racing immortal looking to regain past glory in the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Unlike Stevens, Lukas never left the sport. He’s just been mired in a prolonged slump. He shares the trainer’s record for most Triple Crown victories of all time with 13, but his last came in 2000 when he won the Belmont Stakes with Commendable. His last Derby win came in ‘99 with Charismatic. More understated than his storied rival Bob Baffert (at least in terms of his media presence), Lukas, despite his Triple Crown drought, remains one of the most famous people in the sport.
Gary Stevens has a long history with Lukas — most of it productive. The two teamed up to win the Derby twice, first with Winning Colors in 1988, and then with Thunder Gulch in ‘95 (which also went on to capture the Belmont Stakes). Lukas and Stevens have also won dozens of other major stakes races over the years, and millions of dollars in purse money.
However, the two have had their problems. In the 1991 Nassau County Handicap at Belmont Park, Stevens rode a horse for Lukas called Farma Way. Stevens was unable to harness the horse’s speed out of the gate, and he got locked in a speed duel with a rival. The fast early pace proved to be his undoing. He finished third.
Following the race, Lukas was livid. He blamed Stevens for getting the horse stuck in the duel, and he replaced Stevens on Farma Way the next time he ran. This marked the beginning of a long rift between the pair.
“I didn’t ride for him for six months. [Lukas said] ‘I’m suspending that jock for six months.’ Then he named me on a horse and I said, “Nah. He’s got six months now.’” Stevens recalls, laughing. After the duo traded six-month suspensions, the rift lasted for another year before Stevens rode for Lukas again.
Thunder Gulch’s Derby triumph soon followed, and ever since, it’s been smooth for the pair. That’s good news for Stevens, whose Derby fate is now in Lukas’s hands, and on his horse.
Still waiting for the phone call, Stevens returns from the garage. Mentally, it is already time to prepare for the race. All he needs is a horse to ride.
Mentally, it is already time to prepare for the race. All he needs is a horse to ride.
The dog runs back into the main house, her haircut half done. There are unkempt patches everywhere. “She looks terrible,” Stevens sheepishly admits. In fairness to Stevens, the dog doesn’t seem like a particularly easy customer, and Stevens is not a professional dog groomer.
Dog and owner both take a break. Stevens relaxes in his easy chair. He’s nobly laboring through a conversation, trying to pass the time as best he can. But he has one eye on his cell phone, still waiting for the call from Lukas.
While Stevens waits, his wife is on the phone in the backyard, conducting business. Angie runs a talent management firm and represents about a dozen jockeys, including her husband. She also has clients from the broadcasting and entertainment world — the latter gained from her years working as a production assistant on over 30 different films. One of those films was "Seabiscuit," where she and Gary first met in 2003. A year later, they were married.
The family usually stays in Southern California, but Angie has followed Gary to Kentucky — he plans to ride here through the spring. Much to Stevens’ consternation, the business of Hollywood has also made the trip. Stevens can hear Hollywood right now, as Angie’s backyard conversation is audible in the adjoining living room. He doesn’t like that his silent refuge is being disturbed.
“It doesn’t stop,” he says, shaking his head. “She works out of the house. It’s my day off today. And I know she’s getting ready for Derby, and stuff. I understand this is her office. But I don’t want to hear all the crap. That’s one reason I came here, to Kentucky. To get away from all that. I don’t want to be around it. I want quiet.”
On cue, Maddie enters the house crying. She is in search of a stuffed animal that her mom purchased for her the day before at the Keeneland gift shop, a horse with a cowboy hat. Upon finding it, Maddie pushes a button, prompting the horse to sing the chorus of “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” a popular country song by the duo Brooks & Dunn.
The song does little to calm Maddie down or help Stevens relax. He chases her around for a few minutes, before she escapes to the backyard, where her swing set awaits.
Stevens sits back down in his easy chair, and draws a breath. He is emotionally drained. For seven years, while he was away from racing, the pressures of life in Hollywood were overwhelming. He enjoyed his time acting and broadcasting. But the rest of his life became predictable. The day-to-day was killing Gary Stevens. It doesn’t take guts or balls to sit in a production meeting, attend a charity dinner, or groom a silly little dog. Like Oxbow, the horse he aspires to ride in the Kentucky Derby, Gary Stevens needs to show what he can do and who he is again.
For seven years, while he was away from racing, the pressures of life in Hollywood were overwhelming.
Maddie is the youngest of his five children, and the only one he shares with Angie. He also has two sons, TC and Riley, and daughters, Ashley and Carlie, with his first wife, Toni. They separated in 1994 and divorced a year later.
“Divorce … it’s like almost a death in the family. Because friends are forced to choose sides. And it’s just a lot of distance — I tended to avoid putting myself in situations where I was gonna be in an atmosphere where there were mutual friends or whatever. So I distanced myself from my past as much as I could.”
According to Stevens, the split, tough as it may have been, didn’t weaken the bond between him and his children. He maintains strong relationships with Ashley, Carlie, and TC. Only his relationship with Riley, a 23-year-old professional skateboarder, is problematic.
“He’s probably got more of me in him than any of ‘em. He’s a little rebellious. And he wants to prove something. He’s a hell of a skateboarder. He’s good at what he does. But he doesn’t want to be told to do anything. And he marches to the beat of his own drum.”
When asked if he tried to talk Riley out of skateboarding, Stevens says, flatly, “No.”
“I tried to get him to go to college,” says Stevens, who quit wrestling and dropped out of high school in the middle of his junior year to focus on his riding career, and has long regretted it. Formal education or not, professional skateboarding is not the profession that Stevens would’ve chosen for his son.
“It’s a tough business,” he says of skateboarding. “Tougher than the business I’m in. There’s a lot of good skateboarders out there. You gotta get lucky to make a lot of money.”
Beyond the difficulty of earning a viable living while skateboarding, Stevens is just concerned over his son’s overall well-being; he’s a father.
“I worry about him,” he says. “He’s doing well skating. He’s doing well in his personal life. I just worry a lot about him. He’s still my little boy.”
There is a long pause. The air gets heavy. He doesn’t really want to be talking about this stuff. He just wants the damned phone to ring.
Record nine-time winner of Santa Anita Derby, eight-time breeders’ cup winner, 4888 career wins
Finished year ranked
in money earnings 16 times
Won the Eclipse Award as the
nation’s top jockey
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Right then, it finally does. It’s Lukas. Stevens answers it quickly.
“Hey, coach.” Stevens says.
They talk for a minute about this and that before Stevens, fed up with the waiting, finally pops the question.
“So what do you want to do?”
“I think you should just stay on Oxbow,” Lukas says. “You should come back on Oxbow, and I’ll keep Court on Will Take Charge.”
The jockey absorbs the news he’s been hoping to hear for four months with a straight face. Lukas explains the particulars behind his decision, and Stevens voices his agreement.
The jockey absorbs the news he’s been hoping to hear for four months with a straight face.
“Yeah, Wayne. I don’t think you want to swap around at this point. You take what you got.”
They talk for a minute more about some of the other Derby news that has just come out, including word that three-time Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel has secured the mount on Revolutionary, one of the top contenders in the field. Finally, they say goodbye.
Stevens offers no expression as he hangs up the phone, but it’s now official: Barring a scratch of either horse or jockey, Gary Stevens will get to ride in his 19th Kentucky Derby.
The news validates his months of hard work getting back in shape. It serves notice to those critics, on Twitter and beyond, that Gary Stevens is a big-time player in the game. He’s not doing this for anyone but himself.
“I didn’t come back for a media stunt or anything. This is serious shit. I didn’t want to come back and embarrass myself.
“I’m passionate about this sport, obviously, or else I wouldn’t have come back doing what I’m doing. I came back because I love it. And I think it’s beautiful.”
This is serious shit. I didn’t want to come back and embarrass myself.
At the end of the day, he gets to ride the best horses, at the biggest tracks for the most money. He gets it all — the mornings at the track, the banter in the jockeys' room, and more. He gets to compete, day after day, race after race, with rivals who are good enough to bring Gary Stevens back – the man he recognizes as himself. That guy, the one with guts and balls, who wants to win, sure, but more than anything else, wants another race to run.
Neither the wins, nor the losses stay with him. His greatest successes, his greatest failures, are forgotten in an instant. That goes for even his signature triumphs. Already, only the most dedicated racing fans remember his ride on Thunder Gulch.
“All three of those Derbies up there,” he says, pointing to mounted photos of his three prior conquests. “They don’t mean shit come the first Saturday in May. I need another one.”
Whether Gary Stevens the jockey really needs to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday is debatable. His legacy is secure whether he wins another race or not. Less debatable is the extent to which he needs to compete in the race. It gives his life order and meaning.
When the Churchill Downs starting gate springs open, and Oxbow breaks from post two with Gary Stevens on his back, and they sprint together past the historic Twin Spires, they will be doing what they were both meant to do, what they need to do. For two electrifying minutes, Gary Stevens, in a black cap and black silks with gold stripes on the front and the sleeves, and the gray, gritty, overlooked long shot beneath him, will be running, and free. And there is no place in the world he would rather be this Saturday, or any other day.
Because for Gary Stevens, this time around, the finish line isn’t the end of anything. Back on the track, it means another start. ★
Author's note: On Saturday May 18, Gary Stevens won the 138th Preakness Stakes aboard Oxbow. It was his third Preakness victory, and ninth Triple Crown win overall. Only one other jockey in history, Eddie Arcaro, won all three Triple Crown races at least three times. "To win a Classic at 50 years old after seven years retirement, it doesn't get any better than this," Stevens said after the race. "This is super, super sweet." Stevens became the oldest rider ever to win the Preakness - breaking the record previously held by Eldon Nelson, who won at age 45 in 1972. Told by the press conference moderator that it was believed that Stevens was the first grandfather ever to win a Triple Crown race, Stevens laughed and said "I guarantee I'm the first grandfather (to win) a Triple Crown race."
The author would like to thank Annie Johnson for her onsite assistance at Keeneland Race Course.
Joe DePaolo has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, the Associated Press, ESPN.com, and a host of other notable print and Internet outlets. He is also the producer of the syndicated radio program "America Weekend with Rob Carson." His three previous features, "Pride of the City," "No Finish Line," and "The Importance of Being Francesa," have been cited by a number of longform curators, and his work can be found on Byliner.com, Longreads.com and Longform.org. He lives in New York City, and can be followed on Twitter at @joe_depaolo.