Gary Stevens was justifiably out of breath after the fourth race March 9 at Santa Anita Park.
The 54-year-old Hall of Fame jockey had just hopped off his first race mount since he underwent hip replacement surgery Dec. 21, and he had to work hard in the stretch aboard Oopper Wallah in the six-furlong claiming race.
"It felt great, but I'm a little winded right now," Stevens said after a long stretch drive to the wire with the Congrats colt, who just came up a half-length short behind favored A. P. Zona as temperatures hit 85 degrees at the Arcadia, Calif., racetrack. "He put me right in the race and I had to ride him there and I thought he might get up."
Stevens said he felt "nothing" in his artificial hip after the race, and knew he'd make it back in the saddle three weeks after his surgery.
"I've tested it pretty good (during morning workouts)," said Stevens, who also returned to riding after knee replacement surgery in 2014 to win 31 graded stakes in 2015-16. "It really is (rewarding). It was a lot of hard work. I didn't know (if I would be able to come back).
"You never know, but about the third week after the surgery, there was no doubt. After the surgery it was just instant relief."
Stevens has won 5,083 North American races and more than $250.35 million in purses during his career.