Gary Stevens

Gary Stevens

Skip Dickstein

Stevens Means Business in Gulfstream Return

He rides at Florida track for first time in 12 years while there for Eclipse Awards.

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, in Hallandale Beach for the 43rd annual Eclipse Awards Jan. 18, will ride at Gulfstream Park for the first time in 12 years.

Stevens, a finalist for the outstanding jockey award after a remarkable comeback campaign in 2013, is named on six horses during the Saturday's 11-race Florida Sunshine Millions program. His mounts include Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner and Horse of the Year finalist Mucho Macho Man  in the $400,000 Sunshine Millions Classic.

The 50-year-old rider got his first look at the new Gulfstream Park last winter when he attended the annual Eclipse Awards dinner as an analyst for HRTV. This year's Eclipse Awards will again be presented from Gulfstream's Sport of Kings theater and televised live on HRTV.

"I'm excited," said Stevens, who rode Mucho Macho Man to victory in the Awesome Again (gr. I) last year prior to winning the BC Classic for the first time. "I'm going there to do business. It's a big day for me, not only with Macho but I've got a big day ahead of me. I'm just trying to concentrate on the duties at hand."

Stevens' last rode at Gulfstream in the Florida Derby (gr. I) on March 16, 2002, finishing eighth with High Star.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, Stevens retired for a second time in 2005 before returning at the start of last year. The Idaho native won 69 racesnine of them grade I stakeswith purses totaling nearly $12 million from 383 mounts.

He has kept in touch with both trainer Kathy Ritvo and Finn Green, racing manager for Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, which owns Mucho Macho Man. The 6-year-old son of Macho Uno  is making his season debut in the Sunshine Millions Classic for the third consecutive year and is listed as the 2-5 program favorite in a field of six.

"It's obviously a steppingstone for the 2014 season," Stevens said. "I talked to both Finn and Kathy and I know that the horse is doing well. There's no such thing as easy races, I don't care what they look like on paper. I'm looking forward to getting back there and getting 2014 kicked off the right way."

"He's done a great job with him," Ritvo said of Stevens, who is 2-for-2 on Mucho Macho Man. "He's ridden him flawlessly. Gary's just so smart and so patient, and the horse appreciates both of those things. He's a great rider. He gets along with Macho really well, and I know Macho appreciates Gary taking really good care of him."

A winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes three times each, the Preakness twice including last year with Oxbow , and 10 Breeders' Cup races, Stevens puts Mucho Macho Man among the best horses he has ridden.

"We just clicked," Stevens said. "People say, 'How do you know when you're going to get along with a horse?' I say, 'About five seconds after my rear hits the saddle.' He's got a presence about him. He's a very confident horse, and he gives me a lot of confidence when I'm on his back.

"There's only a handful of horses that I've ridden that have given me the same feeling he gives me. He gives me just a feeling of confidence, from the time he warms up in the post parade to the entire part of the race. He's just full of confidence."

In addition to the Sunshine Millions Classic, Stevens will ride 9-5 program favorite Wishing Gate in the $150,000 Filly & Mare Turf, and Old Time Hockey in the $150,000 Turf. Both horses are trained by Tom Proctor.

Based in California, Stevens plans to stick around South Florida for a few days to ride as well as visit family. His son, Tory, is in his second year as a trainer and his first stabled for the winter at Gulfstream.

Stevens is up against Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario for the Eclipse Award as top jockey of 2013. Mucho Macho Man is a finalist for both older male and Horse of the Year, all of which could make Saturday a spectacular occasion for the entire team.

"You never want to get your hopes up too high and set yourself up for a downfall. I'm only thinking about the races right now," Stevens said. "We'll worry about Saturday night after the races are over with. I have a lot of business to tend to before that."