11/05/2013 1:38PM

Mucho Macho Men


Gary Stevens popped the top off a cold bottle of Heineken with the butt end of a Bic lighter and handed it to a visitor. He could afford to feel generous after winning the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Mucho Macho Man just 24 hours after taking the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Beholder.

“I’ve had 153 text messages and seems like almost as many phone calls,” Stevens said. “Stay here. Drink this. I’m gonna go take a shower.”

It was late on Saturday, better known as Day 2 of Breeders’ Cup, and Stevens was the only rider still in the Santa Anita jockeys room. The day’s wild buzz had been replaced by the mundane hum of the few remaining valets wrapping up their chores. Outside the traffic finally was beginning to thin and the coast was clear, but Stevens’ exhortation was a welcome one. Sit still. Have a cold one. Think about the day.

An hour earlier, as twilight descended upon the main road of the Santa Anita stables, Neil Drysdale made a right turn toward the grassy patch between barns 26 and 36 and extended a hand to Charlie LoPresti.

“It was a brilliant, brilliant performance,” Drysdale said in unambiguous reference to Wise Dan’s second straight victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

“Thank you, Neil,” LoPresti replied. “That means a lot coming from you.”

Behind them Wise Dan grazed, oblivious to the banter.

“His race in Canada and then here today – those two runs were spectacular,” Drysdale continued. “Today everything went wrong for him, and he still won. Did you see how when he came into the stretch he was kind of unbalanced or something? Then when he straightened him – boom, it was over. Well done. Truly.”

Lopresti blushed. But what would Drysdale know? He’s only had a first and four close seconds in the Mile to go along with five other Breeders’ Cup wins.

“People don’t realize how tough it’s been on him this year,” Lopresti said as he admired Wise Dan. “He’s run on such boggy racetracks. He got his track today, but he ran hard. I don’t think you’ll be seeing him run quite as much next year.”

That Wise Dan will be running at all should be cause for widespread celebration. The fiercely protective LoPresti and octogenarian owner Mort Fink owe nothing to no one when it comes to putting good name and welfare of their caramel-colored chestnut on the line. If Wise Dan is elected Horse of the Year again and then comes back at age 7 in 2014, he would be the first Thoroughbred since Forego in 1976 to take the field in search of three straight.

“I’m not going to think about anything until after the first of the year,” LoPresti said. “I’m just going to enjoy it.”

Which, after all, is the point of the exercise. To complain there is too much Breeders’ Cup – and this writer has, often – ends up sounding a lot like the joke Woody Allen used to kick off “Annie Hall,” about the food in a particular Catskills resort being not only terrible but also served in “such small portions.”

The Breeders’ Cup portions are ridiculously large and arrive so often that a race like Beholder’s breathtaking Distaff, run way back on Friday, is rendered ancient history overnight in the face of the nine BC races of Saturday. Even then, on Day 2, there was hardly time to appreciate the all-pro performance of Dank in the Filly & Mare Turf before we were dusting off Groupie Doll’s old crown in the Filly & Mare Sprint and then shoving them both aside to extoll the repetitive virtues of Mizdirection in the Turf Sprint against the boys.

And how about the noble vanquished? Horses who end up second and third in Breeders’ Cup races are sometimes the second and third best horses in their divisions, which ain’t hay.  

In the darkness of the backstretch last Saturday, a groom flicked on a light in Jeff Bonde’s barn. She’s a Tiger, haunches to the webbing, turned slowly and came to the front of her stall. She was the picture of a 2-year-old filly in full, at peace now hours after doing her job in the Juvenile Fillies, which was to go as fast as she could for as far as she could and still somehow manage to hold on. Her disqualification for interference in favor of Ria Antonia was only the fifth in the 258 Breeders’ Cup events presented to that point, and only the second of a horse who had finished first.

“On the bright side,” said Allen Aldrich, part owner of She’s a Tiger, “we’ve got $400,000 and we’ve still got our mare.”

He got that right. Back at the Bob Baffert barn, near the main stable gate, a pair of Breeders’ Cup floral blankets were hung over a shedrow rail. One had been draped across New Year’s Day after the Juvenile, the other on Secret Circle after the Sprint. Baffert and his assistant, Jim Barnes, stared at the flowers as if they were funeral wreaths.

“Only two?” Baffert said, hoping a dark wisecrack might spackle the pain.  Barnes wasn’t in the mood. Game On Dude’s failure in the Classic with Horse of the Year on the line was a disappointment, but there he was, eating his evening chow, content with having won the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic in 2013. Then there was Secret Compass, the barn’s little sister, who got as far as the three-eighths pole chasing She’s a Tiger when her left front ankle fatally snapped, sending her to the ground and John Velazquez spinning through the air.

“That was just devastating,” Barnes said. “It was hard to even put a saddle on Book Review in the next race.”

“I talked to Cordero,” Baffert said, referring to Velazquez’s agent, Angel Cordero Jr. “He told me Johnny said she was moving really well there. She must have hit something, for her to have …”

Baffert doesn’t complete too many sentences. He gets a thought started and let’s others do the rest. This one he didn’t need to finish, since the empty stall on the north side of the barn that once was home to Secret Compass said it all.

“That’s a danger zone right there, dropping into that turn, when they’re going that fast,” Baffert said. “And the good ones, they don’t protect themselves. They just run.”

Stevens was back from his shower. His phone was ringing again.

“I got to get this one,” he said with a smile.

It was Gary’s brother, Scott Stevens. His older brother, that is, Scott being 52 to Gary’s 50. Scott Stevens, a medical miracle in his own right, spent his Saturday riding at Turf Paradise.

“You too?” Gary said, and turned to his visitor. “Scott got disqualified today, too.”

At which point the comparison ended. After winning a race earlier on the card, Scott finished a close second in an $11,000 allowance race on the grass but was disqualified for drifting out into the horse who finished third. The difference in purse money was $1,292. The price tag for Gary’s DQ aboard She’s a Tiger in the $2 million Juvenile Fillies was $740,000.

“I guarantee you took more chances for that eleven thousand than I did for two million,” Gary said.

“I thought that big sonofagun of Wayne’s was going to get you in the Classic,” Scott said, summoning the image of Will Take Charge bearing down on Mucho Macho Man.

“Yeah, he ran huge,” Gary said. “I ran into Lukas in the tunnel after the race. He says, ‘I think I made a mistake putting you on Oxbow earlier this year because nothing would have turned out the way it did if I hadn’t.’ I had to admit he was about right. But it was cool. He had tears in his eyes. He was as happy for me as I was.”

“Well, I was proud of you brother,” Scott said. “Enjoy the moment. I love you.”

The moment began precisely a year ago, when Stevens began telling those close to him that he was going to dry out, get fit, and test his arthritic knees in a comeback that, from most angles, seemed preposterous. When he began riding again in January at Santa Anita, it had been more than seven years since he’d been a full-time jockey.

His victory aboard Oxbow in the Preakness Stakes last May was enough for any fairytale, but Stevens insisted he was in for the long haul. His knees held up. He tied into a cluster of stakes mounts. Trainers like Lukas, Tom Proctor and Richard Mandella disregarded the calendar and tossed Stevens the reins. Then Kathy Ritvo put him on Mucho Macho Man, and together they won America’s richest race by a nose.

“On days like this, we all take chances,” Stevens said. He was on his way to the parking lot now, through the shadowy paddock gardens. In the middle of the walking ring a lingering fan was taking a cellphone photo of the Seabiscuit statue, backlit by the glow from the jockeys room porch.

“Going to the gate for the Classic, I was thinking about Johnny, but in a positive way,” Stevens said. “It’s like what Jerry Bailey told the television audience. Most of the time when we fall we get up, and if we’re hurt the first thing we ask is when can we come back. They had to remove Johnny’s spleen, but it sounds like everything was moving and he’s going to be okay. If there is such a thing, it was a good injury on a bad day.”

Stevens laughed a little at the sound of that line, but you knew what he meant. Stevens fell this year, more than once, but he kept getting up, and in a season during which superstars Ramon Dominguez, Joel Rosario and finally Velazquez suffered serious injuries, on that warm Southern California night in early November it seemed as if Gary Stevens was the last man standing.