05/20/2013 8:04PM

Feel the Beat


That’s Gary Stevens with his back to the camera about to get trampled by oncoming traffic when Storming Home came out from under him near the end of the 2003 Arlington Million, a bad day that resulted in a collapsed lung and various other damage that contributed mightily toward his most recent retirement in 2005. I share this memory not for its sensational impact – although, Wow! – but to underline, in light of the results of last Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, exactly what Stevens can do when he stays on the horse all the way to the finish.

We’ve seen this front-running Oxbow movie before – Stevens and Winning Colors against the boys in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, Stevens and the viscious head case Ruhlmann at 22-1 in the 1990 Santa Anita Handicap, Stevens and that scudding cloud One Dreamer at 47-1 in the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Johnny Longden, often on a loose rein, would say, “I like the rest of them to go where I’ve already been,” and he was not alone among the great ones who are never shy about taking the race into their own hands, no matter how big the stage. In fact, the bigger the better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqNuk3nxCao.

That was Bill Shoemaker’s one and only mount in the Epsom Derby, a race of such intricate challenges in terms of pace and terrain that jockeys through the ages have considered it nothing less than the black belt test of their profession. When Shoemaker put the 25-1 Hawaiian Sound on the lead, cries of “Dumb bloody Yank!” could be heard echoing across the Downs. Two and a half minutes later it took a daring run along the rail by Greville Starkey and Shirley Heights to touch Shoe and his colt at the line. Starkey was one of England’s top money riders for more than a quarter of a century. He won the Epsom Derby exactly once.

Stevens tried to win the Epsom Derby in 1999 aboard Beat All for Michael Stoute. He was given a walking tour of the course by nine-time Derby winner Lester Piggott, which made for a great photo op, and then Stevens went out and finished a solid third to Oath, beaten a little more than three lengths. Stevens, however, was not happy with the result. He thought he should have let Beat All rock ‘n roll.

 “I went into it thinking I had to be conservative early on,” Stevens said some years later. “Instead, I wish I’d let Beat All use some of his speed going up the hill the first three furlongs. I know he would have switched off for me, and I actually think I could have won the English Derby.”

The best thing about the Gary Stevens comeback – other than a healthy wallowing in nostalgia – is the opportunity provided to a fresh audience of fans and media, both social and professional, to appreciate a set of skills possessed by only the very best riders. The sport gets a regular dose from polished pros like John Velazquez and Garrett Gomez, and from such Hall of Fame works in progress as Ramon Dominguez, Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario. But Stevens, at 50, is like watching the finished masterpiece in action, distilled through years of trial by fire and creative inspiration. If Gene Hackman was a jockey, he’d be Gary Stevens.

I’ve always been convinced that the best jockeys are locked into a musical rhythm that plays in the head and rattles their the bones. Whether or not they’re any good at karaoke is another matter, but to watch Gary Stevens at the drums is to understand how a horse and rider must be in perfect sync for the great moments to occur. They call them hoofbeats for a reason.

“By the time I was ten years old, I was playing drums in the drum-and-bugle corps of a Catholic high school that toured the Northwest,” Stevens wrote with co-author Mervyn Kaufman in “The Perfect Ride,” his autobiography. “A year later I became the youngest drummer in the United States to have mastered the eighteen rudiments of drum-playing. I received a certificate, which I still have, from the National Association of Rudimental Drummers….I took drum lessons until I was sixteen, and by that time I was writing my own music and performing it for my instructor. One day he announced there was nothing more he could teach me, so my lessons ended.”

In late 1961 and early ‘62 “Let There Be Drums” by Sandy Nelson – the top of the hill in rock drum recordings of that era -- hit the charts in both the US and the UK, then The Ventures doubled down with a version of their own. If I’ve got my math right, Gary Stevens was conceived in early June of ’62, and yes they had radio and hi-fi in Caldwell, Idaho. So don’t try and tell me this wasn’t playing in Gary’s head all the way around the Pimlico turntable last Saturday afternoon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2b5X8gN5Cc.