Gary Stevens has ended an eight-year retirement from riding to chase his fourth Kentucky Derby victory Saturday at Churchill Downs.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When word started percolating last winter that pick-up game dominance was inspiring Michael Jordan to consider a basketball comeback, friends advised him to stick to planning his wedding.
When the annual rumors about a Roger Clemens' return begin this summer, we'll wonder what has been sprinkled in his corn flakes. There is occasional talk that Jerry Rice still believes he can play football, but it's never more than a whisper.
Jordan is 50. Ditto for Clemens. And Rice.
Gary Stevens turned 50 on March 6. On May 4, Stevens will ride Oxbow for trainer D. Wayne in Kentucky Derby 139.
It will be his first Derby mount in eight years. It will also serve as nationally televised proof that Stevens has put his soaring career as a TV analyst and actor on hold even though critics have been in his corner.
Stevens is four years younger than Bill Shoemaker was when he won the Derby aboard Ferdinand in 1986, but Shoemaker was never as analytical or charismatic as Stevens in front of the camera.
Why? Why risk getting tossed over the rail and getting barked at by fussy owners and trainers? Why?
"I've answered it a million times," Stevens said.
It's Derby Week, Gary. Fans who follow the game one week (or less) per year are going to realize that the guy who had been explaining Derby race strategy to them on television is riding Oxbow for trainer D. Wayne Lukas in Derby 139.
Pardon me, if I make it 1,000,001, but why come back?
"I guess the answer is because I could," Stevens said. "I didn't want to be 70 years old and say, ‘Man, I could have come back.' "
Let me help him here. Gary Stevens is healthy now. His mangled right knee isn't as bouncy as it was when he roared home first aboard Winning Colors while winning the first of his three Kentucky Derby trophies 25 years ago, but the joint no longer feels as if it's on fire. The pain in his back is tolerable. He's shaved nearly 20 pounds from his compact, 5-foot-4 body.
Chase Stevens across the backstretch and you'll notice that although he just turned 50, he looks like he's 40, moves like he's 30 and intends to ride as if he's 20 and just starting his Hall of Fame career. Gary Stevens isn't here to serve as a novelty act. He's not here to sign autographs.
When Stevens left the game nearly seven years ago, he was a mess. His body wouldn't let him ride as aggressively or as confidently as he had ridden while winning eight Triple Crown races, including three Kentucky Derbies (Winning Colors 1988, Thunder Gulch 1995, Silver Charm 1997). Now he only bristles when you ask why he didn't ride Oxbow more aggressively in the Arkansas Derby.
"I've got a little different perspective than I had," Stevens said. "I was pretty burned out and hurting and stuff.
"The fire had gone. That's why I got away from it. That's why I retired. The fire was gone. I didn't feel like the fans were getting the old Gary Stevens or that the horsemen were getting the old Gary Stevens. And I wasn't happy with the way I was performing on a day-in and day-out basis."
Unlike most jockeys, Stevens had options. He has the looks, brains, vocabulary and connections to create another successful career path. His acting clips include a convincing role as a jockey agent in the movie Seabiscuit as well as another a run as a struggling jockey in the HBO series, "Luck."
Television producers loved him, giving Stevens as much work as he wanted on NBC and HRTV. But this is a guy who has won nearly 5,000 races, competed in 18 Kentucky Derbies and ridden horses as fearlessly as Mariano Rivera works the ninth inning.
When you make the list of the top jockeys of his generation, there is Jerry Bailey, Pat Day and Stevens. Now Stevens wants to show he can still ride with the best jockeys of this generation. But the tote board is against him. He's no longer a 2-to-1 shot.
Stevens plans to ride at Churchill Downs this spring – and he's worked the barn area this week, encouraging trainers to use him on their better horses.
"Give me a shout if you need any help," Stevens yelled at several old friends. "Find me one."
Stevens has earned mounts from Lukas, Richard Mandella, Kenny McPeek, Bill Mott, Dale Romans and other prominent trainers. But he's not getting the same horses he was riding back in the days of Silver Charm, Point Given and Winning Colors.
In his prime, Stevens made his way to the winners' circle on as many as 21 percent of his mounts. His current winning percentage is 13 percent – and Oxbow is not considered a top contender Saturday. His 138 mounts have won less than $1.5 million.
"Mentally and attitude-wise, he's better than I've ever seen him," Lukas said. "His diet is better. He looks like he's in the zone. The experience factor, you cannot downplay it. Experience is king. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed guy is king."
Actually, experience is a prince. Having a top runner is king in this race. Can Gary Stevens again become the king of a game he once ruled? Can he get to the winners' circle of the Kentucky Derby for a fourth time, something only Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack have achieved?
"I haven't really allowed myself to imagine what it would feel like because I didn't know what it was going to feel like the first one," Stevens said. "It's the greatest feeling on earth. And I'd love to feel it again."