07/25/2014 2:19PM

Hovdey: Old injury continues to take toll on Stevens


Gary Stevens spent most of Thursday afternoon watching the hours go by, planted on the couch with his dogs and a movie.

“It feels like the day before a Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Stevens said. “I just want tomorrow to get here.”

The tomorrow he was talking about had been nearly three decades in the making, ever since Stevens mangled his right knee in a freak training accident at Santa Anita on the morning of Oct. 10, 1985. He was 22 at the time, a tough kid from the Northwest hitting big on the California circuit, but ever since the moment he bounced off the backstretch rail like a rag doll, that right knee has dictated nearly every twist and turn in his Hall of Fame career.

The most recent wrinkle came at the unlikely age of 49 in January 2013, when Stevens returned to riding after seven years of blabbing about horse racing on TV. The work was about as satisfying as warm custard after filet mignon, but that right knee kept saying, “Sit ... stay,” and gave him no choice. The revelation that he could get fit again, work around the knee, and compete with jockeys half his age became the racing story of the year. It helped that he won the Preakness and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Now the bill has come due. The right knee – reduced to bone on bone and shredded ligaments, exhausted from years of cortisone injections, screaming in protest from the slightest torque – was ready to undergo TKR: total knee replacement. Finally, Stevens was willing to take the chance of trading anything left to his career for a joint free from pain.

“Orthopedic surgeons like Robert Kerlan and Jim Tibone kept telling me to hold off as long as I could,” Stevens said. “They told me that the technology would be incredible at some point. I talked with Dr. Tibone the other day, just to get some peace of mind. He told me the time has come, and the time is right.”

Let’s face it, though: TKRs are no big deal. Just about everyone knows someone who’s had one, or two. Osteoarthritis is epidemic in scope, and it’s a rare joint of a certain age that does not show some kind of symptoms. Stevens is getting slick new surfaces where the femur and tibia meet, plus a nifty new kneecap and a ligament makeover. They are not alone.

“I’ve got a Teflon-coated screw in my right wrist from about 20 years ago,” Stevens said. “There are staples in both shoulders from rotator-cuff surgeries, and a screw in the left shoulder. I’ve never had a problem with any of them.”

Stevens conceded that his recent form on horseback had been below par, and his surgery gives rise to predictable speculation over the spot he is leaving at the top of the jockey food chain. Among other choice mounts for trainers like Tom Proctor and Richard Mandella, on Sunday he would have been riding Bayern in the $1 million Haskell Invitational for Bob Baffert and owner Kaleem Shah.

“I don’t know if it’s the meds they’ve had me on since this last big blowup or just the time off it’s had over the last eight days, but right now, the knee looks amazing compared to how it’s been,” Stevens said. “If I hadn’t seen the pictures of the knee and how bad it had gotten, I would be headed to New Jersey right now to ride Bayern in the Haskell. Then on the plane ride back, I’d be right back to square one, where I was three weeks ago.

“I’ve had several calls from people asking me, ‘Does it hurt?’ when I see a horse I’ve been riding win,” he said. “No, it doesn’t. At the end of the day, it’s only money. And that’s not what it’s all about. If it was only about money, I’d try to find something that pays better with a lot less pain. What it comes down to – and you can ask any rider – is worrying about getting beat a nose in a big race because you weren’t physically right. That’s a whole lot harder to swallow than watching a horse win for another jock.”

Stevens has not declared that the knee replacement will mean the end of his career. This is not surprising from a man who made a miracle comeback at his age after so long on the sidelines. First things first.

“As long as my pain is manageable, they said they’ll probably send me home Saturday afternoon,” Stevens said. “That kind of surprised even me a little. But then, most people who have this operation are elderly people who have never been on crutches before, never used a cane, never been up and down stairs with one leg before. I guess they figured I’ve had enough experience.”

And there will be help at home from Gary’s wife, Angie, and their daughter, Maddy, who has been sharing her Hello Kitty ice pack. Not long ago, the family was in a waiting room for another in a series of doctor’s appointments. Maddy, 5, looked sternly at her father’s leg.

“I am so sick of that knee,” she said.

From the mouths of babes ...

“Daddy’s tired of this knee, too, Maddy,” Stevens replied. “And he’s getting a new one.”

William Norton More than 1 year ago
Shame Jay doesn't cover the true reasons Gary had to come back. But that's Jay.
Gary Peacock More than 1 year ago
Good luck and best wishes, Gary!
Jim Fields More than 1 year ago
Will you guys quit whining about Stevens talking about shocking himself. When he first started in the bushes of the northwest, someone always had a buzzer, that you could borrow, to see if a certain horse would react positively to the little shock it would give them. It wasn't cruel, in the context of animal abuse, anymore than using a whip on the horse. Young riders, like Gary, would be talked into using them, maybe just in a workout, but even in a race. Some older, less talented, riders carried them with them from bush track to bush track. In todays racing world, even bush tracks are more aware and have cameras on races, so it is really unlikely they would be used anywhere today. The idea that racing is always fixed, is laughable and stupid. Maybe one in a thousand races, may have some connection with an ulterior motive, and it may only be a trainer telling a rider "this horse may need this race to get in condition, so don't punish him with the whip". Horse bettors need excuses for their failures in gambling, but a fixed race isn't one of them.
Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
Oh, geez... another excuse maker for illegal and cruel behavior. Will it never end?
Bob More than 1 year ago
Stevens is at an age where any athlete, except maybe a golfer, would have long ago retired.....he needs to come to terms with his mortality; his physical limitations and the fact that his riding career is over, for the sake of his legacy, his health and the wagering public's money. His reputation has already been tarnished by the revelations in the recently released PETA video in which Stevens is clearly overhead laughing and chucking with D. Wayne Lukas about an incident years ago during which he shocked himself with his own buzzer. Both he and Lukas are busting a gut, getting a good chuckle out of Steven's verbal recall of the incident as Lukas chimes in with his own fond memories of the sound of buzzers crackling and popping as the horses circled behind the starting gate. If that alone isn't enough to compel Gary Stevens to retire and leave the limelight behind, then his hubris is out of control and it will very likely lead to further injuries and the degradation of a once great rider's legacy!
jim lefferts More than 1 year ago
The impact of the buzzer story on Gary Steven's career is exactly: Zero.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
try looking at the 1995 Kentucky Derby. Thunder Gulch. On the ABC coverage at 12:10 of the clip just after Stevens crosses the wire he passes Pat Day a black cylinder object. Look at it and get back to me. It looks exactly like the Mens 4x4 relay when they pass the baton signed sealed delivered
R. Carlos Nanez More than 1 year ago
Gary, be realistic, you are 50 not 22 any more, you have nothing to prove to yourself after winning every mayor race in the sport and be in the hall the fame, what more do you want ?. Trying to come back after knee replacement at 50 ?, as a jockey, the knees is one of the first part of the body that star to give you problems,the next is your back, just to name a few once you past forty, that is why most jockeys retired by the mid forties.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
sounds like a bad case of karma to me. Ask all the horses he "BUZZED"
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Cheap shot Anonymous, you don't kick someone when their down. And to think I thought you weren't that kind of guy. Yea right.......
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
cheap shot? kick someone when they are down. I have been kicking him ever since he passed a buzzer after the wire to Pat Day in the 1995 Kentucky derby. He deserves so much more bad karma... He is bad for racing HOF? He should be in the Electricians Hall Of Fame for all the electrical currents he has created in his life.
Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
Exactly. The fact that racing did not kick out of the HOF after he admitted to illegal behavior speaks volumes about the industry.
Big Woodys More than 1 year ago
I wish we could shock all these guys who over-react to that story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
try looking at the 1995 Kentucky Derby. Thunder Gulch. On the ABC coverage at 12:10 of the clip just after Stevens crosses the wire he passes Pat Day a black cylinder object. Look at it and get back to me. It looks exactly like the Mens 4x4 relay when they pass the baton signed sealed delivered
camehome1517 More than 1 year ago
Get well soon! Gary has always been a remarkably tough athlete. Sometime we forget to realize how tough these jockey's are. All the best to Gary and his surgery.