Jockey Profile: Staying in Touch With the Common Man

Published as part of the Preakness coverage in the May 26 Blood-Horse
He may ride for a Saudi Arabian prince, but Gary Stevens hasn't lost touch with the common man.

As the 38-year-old native of Caldwell, Idaho, was leaving the winner's circle ceremonies following Point Given's redemptive victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Stevens spotted Gladys McHargue, a female outrider, perched on her pony, tears streaming down her cheeks. He turned to wife Nikki, who was carrying a bouquet of black-eyed Susans, plucked out a single flower, and handed it to McHargue, then reached up to give her a warm embrace and exchange a few private words.

"She and her husband watched me grow up in Idaho," Stevens said of McHargue, whose husband, Steve, is a paddock judge at Pimlico. "They supported me when I started riding horses at Les Bois (a small track in Boise, Idaho, where Stevens won his first race in 1979) and have followed my career through all the ups and downs."

Stevens' first career move took him to Longacres, a Seattle-area track where he dominated the jockey standings in 1983-84, and gained enough confidence to give the tough Southern California circuit a try. The rest--15 victories in Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races and 1997 induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame--is history.

Stevens made one last visit to Longacres, Sept. 21, 1992, a tearful night when 23,358 people turned out to say farewell. The jewel of Northwest racing since 1933 was being bulldozed for development. "Gladys took me to the starting gate for the very last race at Longacres," said Stevens.

Those memories mean as much to Stevens as the numbers that normally define a jockey's career--races and money won, victories in the classics or Breeders' Cup events. There have been so many twists and turns--riding stints in Hong Kong and England, serious injuries, an unexplained snubbing by Eclipse Award voters (his only Eclipse Award came in 1998), a stunning retirement in December 1999, followed by a triumphant comeback last fall.

The cartilage-damaged knees that convinced him to quit riding haven't magically healed. He takes daily treatment--25 milligrams of Vioxx and a supplement known as GLC--but still feels the effects of guiding an 1,100-pound animal around an oval racetrack at top speed. When Stevens made his comeback, friends worried he was trying to do too much too soon. "Gary can't be riding seven or eight races a day, or he won't last," trainer Richard Mandella said at last year's Breeders' Cup. "We need this guy to be around as long as possible. The sport needs him. He's a star."

Stevens, who hopes his fragile knees will carry him for at least another five years, knows he has to limit the number of horses he rides, and said his new agent, Tony Matos, will be very selective. But Stevens also felt it was important to prove to horsemen last fall that his knees were up to the physical challenge of riding full time again.

"I'm feeling the effects of riding for the last nine months," Stevens said. "My body is telling me to take a little break." Right after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Stevens and his wife will go to her native England, where he plans to ride during the Royal Ascot meeting. "I want to be at my best for the big days, and I can't do that if I'm riding seven horses a day, five days a week. I don't want to go out there if I can't be 100%."

The comeback by Stevens last year appeared effortless, just like so many of his rides, where he expends a minimum amount of motion to get the most from a horse. However, his return wasn't as easy as it looked. "I tested my knees in the morning, working a lot of horses before I made the decision to come back," he said. "But the hardest part was I couldn't do much for my cardiovascular system. With my knees in the shape they are I couldn't run; all I could do was ride a mechanical horse. The first 10 days I was back, I couldn't get my air after a race."

He launched the comeback on Oct. 4, 2000, and within a month was sitting atop Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) winner War Chant, as well as an unlucky loser, Point Given, who came up a nose short of Macho Uno in the Juvenile (gr. I). "I feel like I'm living a dream," Stevens said, after the Preakness added another chapter to his comeback story. "I never knew I would have this kind of opportunity again, to have the faith placed in me to ride this good of a horse."

Stevens won his first Preakness in 1997 with Silver Charm, and has had a second and five thirds among his 12 mounts in the race. When Point Given was led into the winner's circle at Pimlico, there was a look of contentment on Stevens' face that could only partially mask the disappointment of losing the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) two weeks earlier. He accepted blame for that defeat, saying he gunned the big son of Thunder Gulch too early in the race.

"I'd never been as confident going into a race as I was before the Derby," Stevens said. "That's why the loss was so disappointing. But Bob (trainer Bob Baffert) gave me confidence that the race was a fluke, and I rode him today with the same confidence I had going into the Derby. We just went with different tactics."

Following the Derby, the rider talked strategy with Baffert and Point Given's owner, Prince Ahmed Salman of The Thoroughbred Corp. Salman was convinced that Point Given needed to come from farther off the pace than he had been in the Derby.

Stevens allowed Point Given to just lope out of the gate and down the stretch the first time, unlike the Derby when he used him in the early stages to get a forward position from the number 17 post. "Going into the first turn I felt it was all over with," he said after the Preakness. "This felt like the horse I'd ridden to his earlier wins--he was just towing me."

At the top of the stretch, after looping most of the field from the outside, Stevens and Point Given had just one rival left to overcome, stablemate Congaree and jockey Jerry Bailey.

"I came into the stretch with a handful of horse," Stevens said. "Bailey looked over at me and I smiled at him. He smiled back, then took a look behind and said, 'There's nobody coming up the inside.' I looked over my shoulder and didn't see anyone coming on the outside."

The victory softened the blow of the Derby defeat, but Stevens couldn't get the race out of his mind. "Nice win, Gary," one well-wisher said to him afterwards. "Thanks," he answered, "but it was two weeks late."