Gary Stevens stressed Jan. 8 that he's not at Oaklawn Park this season for a working vacation.
Stevens had just breezed Cool Alley, an unraced 3-year-old filly for trainer Mike Johnson, when he outlined his previous day at Oaklawn, where the Hall of Fame jockey is wintering for the first time after previously being based in Southern California.
Stevens, 54, is still a working man.
"(I) worked more horses yesterday morning than I think I have in the last 20 years, in the morning," Stevens said.
Stevens said he breezed seven horses Sunday, including Streamline, one of the favorites for the $125,000 Pippin Stakes Jan. 13.
The jockey's last stakes victory in Hot Springs, Ark., came aboard Concept Win in the 1996 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3). Stevens' first win at Oaklawn came in 1985, when he guided Tank's Prospect to victory in the Arkansas Derby (G1) for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
This year Stevens, his wife Angie, and their 8-year-old daughter Maddie have traded the warmth of Southern California for the chill of Arkansas. He said his family left California on New Year's Day and drove to Tucson, Ariz.; spent the next night in Fort Worth, Texas; and rolled into Hot Springs Jan. 3.
Why would a riding great, known best for racing in Southern California, move his family approximately 1,600 miles less than two months before his 55th birthday?
"Like I've told multiple people in interviews, some pretty basic things—quality horses, quality horsemen, quality money, quality management, and quality living," Stevens said. "Pretty simple math."
Stevens has had 87 mounts at Oaklawn (20 victories and six in stakes), stretching from his first in 1985 to three last year, but said his wife and daughter had never been to Hot Springs.
Angie is a talent manager. Maddie is homeschooled, the jockey said.
"They didn't know what to expect," Stevens said. "They are in heaven right now. They didn't know what they were getting into. They didn't know where I was taking them—put it that way—and they're pretty happy."
Stevens, who is represented by agent Jay Fedor, is named on 15 horses the first three days of racing at Oaklawn. He will be riding for likes of Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O'Neill, and Lukas, a longtime supporter. Stevens and Lukas teamed to win the Kentucky Derby in 1988 with the filly Winning Colors and the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow .
In the tough Southern California jockey colony, Stevens had only 264 mounts in 2017, but said he will not be choosy during the Oaklawn meeting that begins Jan. 12.
"Whatever my agent puts me on," Stevens said. "He's got the pen, and I've got the reins. He's got a green light. He's a good agent."
Physically, Stevens said he feels better than he did before knee problems triggered a retirement from riding from 2006-12. Stevens had knee replacement surgery in 2014 and hip replacement surgery in 2016.
"Knees are good. Hip's good," Stevens said. "Feel like a kid again."
Stevens starts 2018—he began riding professionally in 1979—with 5,125 victories and $253,464,419 in purse earnings in his career, the latter ranking ninth in North American history, according to Equibase.
Stevens won an Eclipse Award as the country's outstanding jockey in 1998, has 11 Breeders' Cup victories and nine in Triple Crown events. His numerous top mounts include Eclipse Award winners Beholder, Silver Charm, Point Given, Serena's Song, Thunder Gulch, and Winning Colors.
There's room for more, too, Stevens said.
"I haven't felt this way in a long time," Stevens said. "I feel pretty motivated right now and just excited to get started. I feel the pressure, because big things are expected, and I'm going to get the opportunity to ride for some top outfits and some very good horses. It's up to me to perform now."