Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens signs autographs before his last race,  Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens signs autographs before his last race, Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Associated Press

Stevens Hears Tributes Prior to Final Ride

By Claire Novak
He may have been one race away from ending his riding career, but Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens found a way to the Churchill Downs winners' circle before his last mount, Louve Royale, drove to a second-place near miss in the twelfth race on Saturday.

Joined by friends and family, the 42-year-old Eclipse-award winner posed for a photo with the Churchill Downs jockey colony, then paused to look back on a video featuring highlights from his 27-year racing career. "You know, there are so many fond memories up there," Stevens said after watching the film. "I really haven't put into perspective just how successful my career has been, so to get the chance to look back now and enjoy those moments is wonderful."

"I want to thank every trainer, every owner, every horse, and every fan that's ever watched me perform," Stevens told the crowd at Churchill. "I've absolutely loved what I've done for the past 27 years, but I'm not sad about leaving the saddle. I'm walking into a new chapter of my life, and I'm very excited about that."

Track president Steve Sexton presented Stevens with a framed collection of his multiple Kentucky Derby win photos, along with a personalized director's chair. "On behalf of all the fans at Churchill Downs and all those watching across the country, thank you for being a committed ambassador to the industry," he told Stevens.

"It's a very special feeling to end my career here at Churchill Downs," Stevens said. "For the number of loyal fans that showed up today and ... it's hard to put into words, it's hard to explain."

"He was certainly one of the best," said trainer Patrick Biancone, who saddled Stevens' final mount. "I really do regret that I hadn't met him 25 years ago. He made a big difference with the horses, because he wasn't only a pilot, he was – and still is – a real horseman."

The crowd gave Stevens a huge ovation as he came on the track for his final race aboard the Irish-bred Louve Royal, who was sent off as the favorite in the first-level allowance race. Trailing the field in the 1 1/6-mile turf event, Stevens' mount encountered traffic problems at the head of the stretch before steaming home to finish a close second behind Moonshine Gal.

Despite the loss, Stevens left as "the happiest guy in the world," he said to the applause from thousands of fans on a cold, overcast day. "I don't have to go through the pain anymore."

Stevens, plagued for several years by knee problems, finished with 5,005 career victories and more than $220 million in purse earnings.