As Gary Stevens led Easy Grades into the gate for the Santa Anita Derby, he heard the words no rider wants to hear at this particular time. He was halfway in the gate when the assistant starter went to grab the bridle and let out an "Aw, shoot!" Only, shoot wasn't the word he used.
"What's wrong," Stevens asked.
"Your curb strap (chin strap) is behind the rein," the starter told him.
That began Stevens' ride from hell aboard the son of Honor Grades. By the time dusk had settled on Southern California, everyone knew more about bridles and chin straps than they ever imagined they'd know. When Gary Stevens says on national television he had no control over his horse and was riding with only his legs, people sit up and listen.
So, what exactly does it mean when a chin strap, which just seems to hang there anyway like a useless appendix, is behind the bit and rein?
"What happens is that it actually tightens up when you pull on the rein and it pinches the horse's mouth," Stevens said. "When the chin strap tightens up, you get a reverse effect. You pull one way and it pinches him on the other side. I wasn't totally out of control, but I couldnt get him in, and five wide the whole way is not where I want to be."
Unfortunately, Stevens was the last of the eight horses to load, so there was no time to do anything. "Before I knew it, we were off," Stevens said. "If someone had had a knife he could have just cut the chin strap off. I don't know what purpose it serves anyway."
Stevens said he wasn't able to steer the gelding throughout the race and wound up losing ground all the way, exerting both his and the horse's energy.
"I had to keep pulling on the left rein to keep him in," Stevens said. "You could seem me leaning to the side riding him. I would have liked to come back afterward and say yes he can go a mile and a quarter or no he can't. But we didn't learn anything. Sure he was tiring, but I think he used up so much energy that he deserves a chance to go on. Believe me, I had so much horse all the way, but I couldn't let him run. Every time I asked him he'd run out, because the bit was pinching him. In my mind it did make a difference. It was like driving a car with power steering, then suddenly you're trying to steer a Mack truck without power steering. This little horse was so gallant to do what he did.
"Put it this way, when I worked him he had power steering. He was an absolute dream. He didn't lug in or lug out. Maybe too big a deal was made about this, but the only reason this horse flattened out the way he did was because he was tired fighting me and I was tired fighting him. The only way to get him to run was to chirp to him and pop him on shoulder with whip; he was wanting to get to outside fence. Who knows, maybe if it didn't happen Came Home would have fought back even more, but it's something people need to know. Believe me, this horse is a pro."
Stevens said that what happened to the bridle is a "fairly common mistake." It's happened to Jerry Bailey, who said when it does, "You can't guide the horse. You have very little control."
"When you wash (the new nylon bridles) and then have to reassemble them, sometimes they get put back incorrectly," Stevens said.
Stevens will ride Sunday Break in Saturday's Wood Memorial, and if the colt goes on to the Derby, Stevens will be aboard. But if he doesn't, then Stevens will be reunited with Easy Grades at Churchill Downs, where he'll get a chance to show the world just what the horse is capable of.