The tone in Gary Stevens' voice Dec. 13 was not that of an angst-ridden man contemplating the possible end of his career.
When one has had the amount of comebacks and setbacks the Hall of Fame jockey has, perspective is a lifeblood. With another impending surgery, this one for hip replacement, set for next week, Stevens is fully at peace with whichever way this outcome goes.
"It's a new chapter and a new journey and we'll see what it brings," Stevens said Tuesday. "I'm actually in great spirits."
The latest chapter in the indelible saga that is Stevens' career will be revealed in the coming months after the 53-year-old living legend recovers from having his ailing left hip repaired. After announcing his plans to have surgery, Stevens knew that—next to well wishes—the most common reaction to his upcoming convalescence would be wonderment as to whether he was literally and figuratively ready to walk away from the saddle.
It's not a query Stevens has the answer for currently, and it's one he won't have more insight into until he is out of recovery and fully locked into some soul searching. He has done this before, after all, coming out of a seven-year retirement in 2013 to sweep that year's Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) and Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) with Beholder and Mucho Macho Man , respectively, and returning from a successful knee replacement surgery in 2014.
He has the same team of doctors that rebuilt his knee into a foundation strong enough for him to deliver one of the most memorable rides of his career when he guided his future Hall of Fame heroine Beholder to a nose victory over previously unbeaten Songbird in the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park. He knows he'll likely physically be able to ride again in about 12 weeks if he so chooses.
The thing is, he's got a standard he wants to keep. And if for one second he thinks that is in jeopardy, any internal debate will be rendered moot.
"I'm basically doing what I did with my knee. It's not as drastic as a surgery with recovery time in that, if everything goes well, it's much quicker," Stevens said. "I'm hopeful that I can return to the saddle but I also understand things. And if I don't feel like Gary Stevens on a horse, then I'm going to stay off the horses, and that's the attitude I had with the knee. It's something that will be decided in the weeks after the surgery as it progresses.
"I told (wife) Angie (Athayde Stevens) that I'll probably retire when Beholder retires, but I didn't feel like it. I actually did feel like it when the photo came down but then I was like 'Nah, I want one more Derby chance'. So maybe that was the end, maybe it's not. I'm optimistic and I'm in a good place mentally."
Stevens said he had been experiencing pain in his left hip, an area that had never previously caused him issue, in early July and had it X-rayed during a visit with Dr. Andrew Yun, who conducted his knee replacement surgery. The initial diagnosis was that of a torn labrum, something Stevens was able to treat and bear with through injections.
When he went for an injection the Monday following the Breeders' Cup World Championships, however, it was painfully clear the condition was taking a turn for the worse. When he went for another slated injection Dec. 12, X-rays revealed he had been trying to ride on a hip that was now bone on bone.
"I got a couple of injections prior to Breeders' Cup and I got through Breeders' Cup weekend with flying colors," Stevens said. "But on the following Monday after Breeders' Cup, I went in and had another injection and it didn't feel like the first one. Something happened and I've been fighting it since then.
"I went in yesterday to possibly get another injection but they took a picture of it and they compared it to the one that was taken in July and there was zero cartilage left in it. They said 'You've been riding on this thing?' I thought I would just work through it and it would be all right, but obviously it wasn't. I'm with the best of the best and I'm going to hope for the best."
Stevens had signed on to be first call rider for Ruis Racing before his hip gave out, but will remain with that team as an advisor and assistant as he recovers.
And recover is among the many things he does best. Having already notched 5,083 wins through Dec. 11, won nine Triple Crown races—including three editions of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I)—and 11 Breeders' Cup contests, Stevens has the luxury of being able to decide on what terms he wants to go out on.
"(My doctor) said, 'If that's what you want to do, if you want to come back, I would say 97% going into this that you're going to come back and you're going to be back in 12 weeks,'" Stevens said. "But I want to analyze this and I want to analyze other options I have at this stage of my life, not career, but my life and my family.
"If it ended last weekend at Los Alamitos, I'm satisfied now. I'm at peace. But...I've still got that burn."