Jockey Gary Stevens is back on top

By RICHARD GROSS  |  March 29, 2013 at 11:10 AM
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, March 29 (UPI) -- "Comeback" was the word actor, broadcaster and former jockey Gary Stevens used to announce his return to riding on Jan. 6 at Santa Anita Park.

"Maybe I should have chosen a different word," Stevens said, gently laughing, this week.

Vacation, hiatus, time off or whatever you might call it, Stevens is back in the saddle and the winner's circle at age 50 after a seven-year absence.

He's back in Dubai, seeking a second Group 1 Dubai World Cup title and the winner's share of a $10 million purse in the world's richest horse race Saturday.

Calling his return to racing a "comeback" is one of the few missteps Stevens can claim.

The Hall of Fame jockey accumulated nearly 5,000 wins and $220 million in winnings during the first part of his 25-year riding career. He won the Kentucky Derby three times. He guided Winning Colors in 1988, the most recent of only three fillies (Regret in 1915 and Genuine Risk in 1980) to win America's most prestigious race. He won again on Thunder Gulch in 1995 and scored a Derby hat trick with Silver Charm in 1997.

Stevens won the Preakness twice, with Silver Charm in 1997 and Point Given, a son of Thunder Gulch, in 2001. He aced the Belmont three times, aboard Thunder Gulch in 1995, with Victory Gallop in 1998, spoiling the Triple Crown bid of Real Quiet by a nose at the finish line, and on Point Given in 2001.

He won eight Breeders' Cup races, the 1991 Group 1 Japan Cup on Golden Pheasant, and 16 riding titles, including one at York in England. He was named to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1997 and took home the Eclipse Award as North America's top rider the following year.

Stevens has been highly successful in Dubai, winning the 1998 Dubai World Cup on Silver Charm after a near-miss when his horse, Soul Of The Matter, lost a desperate stretch battle to the great Cigar in the inaugural running of the race on dirt in 1996 at the old Nad Al Sheeba Racecourse. He also won the $2 million Group 1 Golden Shaheen on Caller One in 2002 and the $1 million, Group 2 Godolphin Mile the same year on Grey Memo.

He became a film star in 2003, art imitating life, portraying legendary rider George "The Iceman" Woolf in the film "Seabiscuit," whose namesake award he won as a jockey in 1996. The role spread his name and fame to a worldwide audience, suggesting there could be life out of the saddle.

So he left racing in 2005 with fame, fortune and two chronically aching knees.

He had occasional acting roles, most recently as a regular on the short-lived, but critically acclaimed, HBO television series "Luck." He became a successful and equally acclaimed broadcast commentator for NBC Sports and a consultant to several racing stables. He authored the well-received book "The Perfect Ride" in 2002. He was even named one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in 2003 by People Magazine.

None of it was enough to slake his competitive thirst.

"The fire never went out," Stevens said during preparations for the World Cup. "I don't think I knew how much I missed it."

So he returned to racing at Santa Anita, where he has won the Santa Anita Derby a record nine times, and picked up where he left off when he left riding. He's back in the saddle, back in Dubai at Meydan Racecourse, back with two very good chances on two very good horses, Breeders' Cup Turf winner Little Mike in the Group 1 UAE Derby, and later on the Tapeta artificial surface in the Dubai World Cup with Pacific Classic victor and synthetic specialist, Dullahan.

Stevens officially returned to riding Jan. 6 and had his first winner less than a week later, a filly named Branding. He won the first graded stakes race since his return on Slim Shadey in the San Marcos Stakes in February.

What started as a comeback has become a clinic that could become a fairy tale with the possibility of Dubai World Cup and UAE Derby wins Saturday.

But there was no way to predict the success of his return to racing. Why take the chance of soiling his legacy with an ill-advised return?

"I came down the stretch on Slim Shadey and felt the acceleration of an exceptional racehorse," Stevens tried to explain. "I hit about a furlong from the finish and I literally got a smile on my face during the running of the race. I said to myself, 'This is what I was missing.'"

Stevens has a home in Louisville and intends to ride in the upcoming spring meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. He even nurses the dream of a fourth win in the Kentucky Derby. Fit again and feeling rested, Stevens isn't cowering before riders young enough to be his children.

"I'll match myself with anyone," he said with a look of determination. "I love a battle."

Back in Dubai, the city where he experienced three of his greatest career wins, Stevens is reflective about this, his latest "good trip."

"When it's time, I'll take some time off again," he said, measuring his career in desire instead of years. "But I'm getting to live the dream of a lifetime. Few people get the experience once, let alone twice, on the biggest stage in the world on the biggest night in Thoroughbred horseracing."

It's a great story. Just don't call it a comeback.

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