10/28/2013 1:36PM

Breeders' Cup: Stevens, Smith still showing youngsters how it's done

Barbara D. Livingston
Mike Smith, 48, and Gary Stevens, 50, each has a good shot at a Breeders' Cup win or two.

ARCADIA, Calif. – As old as they are, Gary Stevens and Mike Smith are supposed to be a little bitter by now, reminding folks of their former glories while complaining of how they’re being unfairly snubbed while the younger guys get legged up on the better horses.


In the context of world-class athletics, yes, they are old: Stevens is 50 and Smith is 48. But when the Breeders’ Cup is run this weekend at Santa Anita for the 30th time, no other riders will be better-mounted, as they say, and that’s a testament to how these two remarkable jockeys are still riding in the same form that got them inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.

Moreover, their stories are closely intertwined. Stevens and Smith live just a couple of miles from each other in nearby Sierra Madre, Calif., and have been good friends for nearly 30 years, having leaned on each other frequently to confide in someone who knows precisely the ups and downs of a superstar jockey.

“It’s something,” Smith said one recent morning at Santa Anita. “One of the best things about this year is Gary’s around again. That makes it more fun and exciting for me.”

Smith, from New Mexico by way of New York and numerous points in between, has spent countless hours and days in the company of Stevens, who is from Idaho by way of Seattle, the pages of People magazine, NBC Sports, and Hollywood – both the soon-to-close racetrack and the famously glitzy movie factory. Both men are storybook-worthy, their chapters integrated with many truly great feats in racing, their roller-coaster lives humanizing them for the public-at-large to empathize with all they’ve been through.

Fast-forward through those incredible individual histories, and here’s the distillation: both say they’re living the dream despite what Father Time says they should be doing, a fortuitous combination of hard work and good fortune having landed them both squarely in the spotlight of yet another Breeders’ Cup.

“Do I pinch myself? Sure I do,” said Stevens, whose retirement in November 2005 lasted a little more than seven years before he returned to the saddle in early January and became one of the biggest racing stories of 2013 with his sensational comeback. “Last year at Breeders’ Cup, I was here just planning to get fit and healthy again, and had no clue I’d be in this position a year later. It’s been pretty unbelievable.”

Stevens once again has become a go-to rider for the major events for a number of high-profile trainers, winning 19 stakes this year, 14 of them graded, with the May 18 Preakness on Oxbow being the most significant. His 2013 mounts already have earned nearly $6.2 million; it’s like he never left. He is scheduled to have nine mounts in the 14 Breeders’ Cup events, to be run Friday and Saturday, including such major contenders as Mucho Macho Man in the Classic, Beholder in the Distaff, Marketing Mix in the Filly and Mare Turf, Indy Point in the Turf, and She’s a Tiger in the Juvenile Fillies.

Mucho Macho Man, second in the Classic last year, won the local prep, the Sept. 28 Awesome Again, in very impressive fashion, and Stevens believes the 5-year-old horse “probably is coming into this better than last year because he’s had more solid preparation.”

“He was just awesome in that last race,” Stevens said. “I’m really excited about his chances.”

Smith has what appears to be the best roster of prospects of anyone, be it jockey, trainer, owner, handicapper, or van man. He is named to ride in 12 BC races, with his best hopes being Game On Dude, the solid favorite for the Classic, as well as Royal Delta (Distaff), Little Mike (Turf), Mizdirection (Turf Sprint), Tap It Rich (Juvenile), and Outstrip (Juvenile Turf).

Game On Dude, trained by Bob Baffert, has not lost in six starts since finishing seventh as the 6-5 favorite in the 2012 Classic.

“I know Bob’s got the horse as good as he can get him,” Smith said.

Smith lost one of his BC mounts Saturday in a tragic workout incident at Santa Anita. He was riding Points Offthebench, the likely favorite for the Sprint, when the gelding suddenly broke down, throwing the jockey to the dirt. Smith escaped injury but was extremely upset with Points Offthebench having to be euthanized.

“It was beyond horrible,” Smith said. “So sad.”

Smith became the all-time leading jockey in Breeders’ Cup wins last year in races won (17) and purse money earned ($23.6 million). His first BC win came with Lure in the 1992 Mile at Gulfstream Park; his most recent with Royal Delta in the Distaff (formerly Ladies’ Classic) and Mizdirection in the Turf Sprint here last year. He said that surpassing legendary riders Jerry Bailey (in wins) and Pat Day (in earnings) remains “very humbling, very gratifying.”

“I look back at where I started and it’s hard for me to get a grasp on all that kind of stuff,” Smith said.

Stevens knows well what it’s like to earn similar awards and praise. This latest go-round has inspired awe from those who have known him for decades, including trainer Tom Proctor, for whom Stevens has ridden more than anyone else since his return. Stevens rode 47-1 shot One Dreamer to win the 1994 BC Distaff for Proctor.

“You just have to realize that Gary is very intense,” Proctor said. “You’re best off just to leave him alone and know that when he’s concentrating on riding that that’s what he’s into. He is an excellent horseman, that’s for sure. It’s nice to be riding a guy who knows where he wants to be in a race if he has enough horse.”

Stevens said his comeback was sparked largely by a newfound desire.

“One of the reasons I quit was because I’d lost my fire,” Stevens said. “When I was young I would hop out of bed and couldn’t wait to get to the track. Except for when the big events came around, that just wasn’t me anymore, and that wasn’t fair to anybody. The time away allowed me to appreciate what this sport means to me and to rejuvenate my passion. I’m in a very good place right now.”

As for their personal lives, Stevens has four children with his first wife, Toni, and a 4-year-old daughter, Madison, with his third wife, Angie. Smith, who has no children, was married for 14 years before being divorced from the former Patrice Lively, the daughter of jockey John Lively, and was famously involved for several years with fellow jockey Chantal Sutherland before that relationship ended in 2010. Sutherland has since married California businessman Dan Kruse.

Stevens and Smith both are keenly aware of the implications of their advancing age, but feel they have helped to minimize that factor through a combination of vigorous exercise regimens, healthy diets, and good genes. Both have overcome numerous serious injuries throughout lengthy careers and are possessed of extraordinarily strong mental outlooks, shaped in no small part by the day-to-day physical demands of their profession and the personal disappointments they have endured. When people marvel about jockeys being tough and resilient, they would be hard-pressed to find better examples than these two.

Their friendship extends far beyond the racetrack gates. Stevens said that during his years out of the saddle, when he worked briefly as a trainer and in other racing-related capacities but mostly as a broadcaster, he was reluctant to go into the jockeys’ room “because I felt I didn’t belong there anymore.” His friendships waned in regard to most of his riding colleagues – except Smith.

“Mike and I would still hang out a lot,” he said.

“We’d do whatever friends do,” Smith said. “Go to dinner, have a night out, stuff everybody does. Gary has come back home with me a couple times to New Mexico; he’s a big fan of Native American art. Even when he wasn’t riding, we’d still do all kinds of things together.”

Still, with so much on the line for so many other people, such close camaraderie is strictly taboo when it comes to riding races. Smith even joked that he is purposely avoiding Stevens as the Breeders’ Cup approaches.

“He’s got his side and I’ve mine,” he laughed. “There’s no meeting in the middle this week.”

Because they rode different circuits before Smith moved from New York to Southern California in 2001, their friendship in earlier years consisted mostly of mutual admiration from afar. From early on, Smith said he “always looked up to Gary,” whose rise in racing in the 1980s was meteoric, and that they only became closer when they finally rode out of the same jockeys’ room in California.

“There’s always been a good, healthy competitiveness between us,” said Smith. “If I don’t win, I hope he does.”