06/06/2013 2:36PM

Belmont Park: Bailey, Cordero admire comeback by Stevens

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Barbara D. Livingston
Gary Stevens, victorious aboard Oxbow in the Preakness, has ridden 21 winners from 170 mounts since returning from his 2005 retirement.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Retired Hall of Fame jockeys Jerry Bailey and Angel Cordero Jr. were contemporaries of Gary Stevens and believe the fellow Hall of Famer is riding better now than when he did just before his retirement in 2005.

Stevens, 50, returned to the saddle in January, and three weeks ago he rode Oxbow to victory in the Preakness Stakes. Stevens will be aboard Oxbow again in Saturday’s 145th running of the Belmont Stakes, a race he has won three times.

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“I think it’s amazing,” said Bailey, 55, who retired in January 2006. “If I was off for seven years and I was 50, I can’t imagine trying it, to be honest with you. I don’t think people realize that at that age, taking that much time off, what it takes to even get back to an acceptable level, let alone for him to ride at the highest level. I actually think he looks better now than the last year he rode.”

Stevens has ridden 21 winners from 170 mounts since returning.

Bailey, now a racing analyst for NBC Sports, said he never thought about trying to make a comeback.

“I missed it, I still miss winning, but I don’t miss all the other stuff,” Bailey said. “I didn’t gain a lot of weight, but I don’t think I could get those last three or four or five pounds off. I know my reflexes are not the same, not even close to good enough to do this.”

Cordero, 71, was forced to retire after a spill in 1992. Cordero did attempt a comeback, but it never took flight. He has been the agent for jockey John Velazquez for nearly two decades.

Cordero said this week he told Stevens “he’s riding better now than when he was young. He started laughing.”

Cordero said that the tangibles Stevens had as a rider during his prime are still evident today.

“He’s smart. Horses run for him. That doesn’t erase from your mind even when you’re old,” Cordero said. “He looks pretty fit on a horse. He’s doing a great job. He’s got everybody trying to make a comeback.”

Bailey said people underappreciated Stevens’ front-running tactics aboard Oxbow in the Preakness because he used the same tactics in the Derby where he chased a hot pace and finished sixth.

“The criticism he might have received had he not won being on the lead early is not to be underscored,” Bailey said. “Because it’s a tremendous amount of pressure to go ahead and do what feels right but what might be widely criticized if it doesn’t work out. The biggest thing he brought to the table was the experience and wisdom to do what was right regardless of what the criticism might be.”