01/08/2014 12:29PM

2013 Eclipse Awards: Gary Stevens

photo by: Barbara D. Livingston

He’s back in the saddle again!

As comebacks go, they don’t get much sweeter than the one 50-year-old Gary Stevens made in 2013. He seized racing’s center stage with wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, BC Distaff, and Preakness, and for his triumphant return is an Eclipse Award finalist for North America’s outstanding jockey. He won the honor in 1998.

Stevens retired in 2005 but resumed riding last January. He landed a Kentucky Derby mount a few months later and for a vanishing moment looked as if he might be on his way to a fourth win in the most storied race in America. Instead, Oxbow finished sixth under Stevens.

“That’s probably the happiest I’ve ever been in defeat,” the rider told Daily Racing Form. “To be 50 years old and make the lead coming into the stretch and actually think I’m going to win it – I did get teased a little bit by the guys for my youthful enthusiasm.”

But it was Stevens who was laughing a few weeks later, when he and Oxbow lulled the Preakness field to sleep. It would be the first of eight Grade 1 wins for Stevens in 2013, a list punctuated by the $2 million Distaff with Beholder and the $5 million Classic with Mucho Macho Man. For Stevens, who in 1997 was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, it was his first Classic win.

“Maybe this was all meant to be,” he told Daily Racing Form after winning the Classic, the richest race in North America. “I mean, I thought it was going to happen, but I can’t believe it did happen.

“This is retirement for me. Believe it or not, it’s a retirement check every month. I’m having fun.”