07/25/2014 1:19PM

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.”