CRAWFORD | Stevens making comeback look easy, but it isn't - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Stevens making comeback look easy, but it isn't

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AP photo. AP photo.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Gary Stevens stands outside the barn at Churchill Downs a week before the Kentucky Derby, just like he did ten years ago, even twenty years ago. The rest of us look older. He does not.

He's always made it look easy, no matter what he tried. He's 51 years old getting ready to try to win his fourth Kentucky Derby, aboard Candy Boy, but he still looks like a jockey someone ordered from central casting.

In fact, when Hollywood needed a jockey, it called Gary Stevens. He was so good in the film Seabiscuit that National Thoroughbred Racing Association president Tim Smith said he "stole every scene" and hoped the sport wouldn't lose Stevens to acting altogether. Hollywood came calling again years later with a role in the HBO series Luck, before its abrupt demise.

When Stevens finally retired from racing in 2005, he had won more than 5,000 races, all over the world, from Louisville to Tokyo to Dubai. He'd been inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness twice, the Belmont three times and a pile of Breeders' Cup races. He'd earned more than $220 million in purses. He had the longest resume in the game, then slid out of the saddle and into the seat of horse racing analyst for NBC Sports as easily as a thoroughbred changes leads.

These days, Stevens hasn't given up on Hollywood. But he's trying to script a Hollywood ending to his riding career first.

He stunned the thoroughbred racing world when he came back to the sport last year after seven years away. Again, he made it look easy. He won his third Preakness. He won the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Mucho Macho Man. As the racing season of 2013 faded to black, there was Stevens, celebrating two wins on racing's richest day.

Watch the highlights, and Stevens looks like a guy who has had a perfect trip. In fact, that was the title of the memoir he wrote in 2002. The Perfect Ride.

Now here's what Stevens wants you to know as he sets out on a quest for one more Kentucky Derby victory, as he stands out in front of the barn talking about Candy Boy.

It isn't easy. And it never has been, really.

While the beautiful people (and the not-so-beautiful) are shaking off one hangover on Derby morning and anticipating another that night, Stevens will be walking. Not walking the shed row, or walking a horse. He'll be walking to loosen up his knees, to get himself ready. It's a solitary, purposeful walk.

"People see me riding a couple days a week, and maybe two or three mounts on those days," Stevens said. "There's about six, seven hours of preparation that goes into riding one of those races. I walk, every day that I ride, three or four miles, and do a lot of stretching, and have a lot of things that I didn't have to do when I was younger."

Since making his comeback, Stevens has picked his spots. He can't ride too many times in a day; his knees can't take it. He's turned off some would-be clients by turning down mounts, but the man has won enough races. He's looking for memorable moments.

He's making it look easy, but Stevens knows about adversity. The trip, in reality, never has been perfect, far from it. As a six-year-old he was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition that forced him to wear a large metal brace and keep weight off his right leg for a year and a half. When he got it off, his right leg was two inches shorter than his left, and his father could fit his thumb and middle finger around his right thigh. But Stevens fought his way back. He became a high school wrestler, but after losing his final match and dislocating his shoulder, he walked away from that sport, and in fact dropped out of high school in 1979, to pursue a professional riding career.

Over the years there have been other obstacles. Stevens admits to struggling with alcohol, a constant battle that he must stay on top of. But right now, he feels good. He's asked if he's a better rider than he was in the old days.

"I wish I had my body I had when I was 26, to go with the experience I have now," Stevens said.

Who doesn't?

"Let's just say I'm having a good time," he added. "The experience of all the years I rode, and seven years in the announcer's booth, actually helped me as a rider, analyzing races in a different way than I ever did. Now I can review a race and really get something more out of it than when I was a rider (before)."

He speaks confidently on a warm spring morning, having just put Candy Boy through his final work before the Kentucky Derby, five furlongs in a minute and 4/5 seconds. He finished third, eight lengths behind Derby favorite California Chrome, in the Santa Anita Derby. Before that, he won the Grade 2 Robert and Beverly Lewis Stakes in February. Since breaking his maiden, the loss in the Santa Anita Derby is the only time Candy Boy has not been first or second, and Stevens blames himself for that, saying, "We had to do some different things in that race and it backfired a little."

Candy Boy is trained by John Sadler, who has worked with Stevens from the start on this In Excess colt. A year ago, Stevens was aboard a longshot, the D. Wayne Lukas trained Oxbow. He's more confident this year.

"This horse I know a lot better than I did Oxbow," Stevens said. "I have a lot of confidence in this horse. . . . This is a good horse. John's had a plan from January. I've  been on his back for every one of his works. We built toward this race since November of last year. The horse is carrying good flesh. A lot of these horses you see look like they've already run in the Kentucky Derby. They're losing weight.... He's never missed a beat. He'll handle the distance."

Stevens is racing with confidence, but also with the kind of edge of a guy who can't be sure he'll ever ride in this race again. He'd like to hang in there a while longer. His body will dictate whether he will.

"It's America's race. It's my favorite race," he said. "I've had success in it. Hopefully I've got another one in me. I'm expecting to finish first. That's what I'm here for. I think, probably because of my time away from the saddle, I appreciate it a little more. . . . A year ago, I didn't know how long I'd last. So every day now is a blessing. To get back here, it's great."

Racing thoroughbreds is not a peaceful existence. It's dangerous, violent at times and takes a toll on the body. For Stevens to be back doing it at this level at age 51 puts him among the great comebacks of any sport.

Out in front of the barn, Stevens seems unhurried, even lingering with reporters.

"I don't know," he said. "If I need to take a break, I'm going to take a break. But I'm feeling good right now. If my body tells me I need to stop for a little while, I will. But I hope to be around for a couple more years. I love the competition. I love the animals. I love being around the barn in the mornings as much as I love the races in the afternoons. I'm around a handful of trainers, good horse people. I appreciate all of it."

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