03/20/2015 2:06PM

Hovdey: Stevens ‘fully armed’ with Firing Line in Sunland Derby


A couple of weeks ago, Gary Stevens and Catch a Flight were galloping back alongside Tyler Baze and Bronzo, gabbing about what had just transpired in the Santa Anita Handicap when all of a sudden, the bottom fell out.

“I was in midsentence,” Stevens said. “My horse just tripped. His head actually hit the ground, and he ejected me straight up in the air. I tucked up and hit the ground on my left side and my back, but all I could think was, ‘Hold together, knee!’ ”

That would be his right knee, which was replaced last year after more than 20 years of arthritic agony.

“I banged my head and had the wind knocked out of me,” Stevens said. “Later, I thought, ‘Hell, I should have led with my knee. It’s the strongest part of my body.’ ”

At least, it’s the newest. Stevens is 52. His knee is barely 9 months old. Neither his age nor his knee should be a factor Sunday in New Mexico, where he will ride the heavily favored Firing Line in the $800,000 Sunland Derby. Still, the lesson remains: A jockey can never be thinking about his next horse until he has safely dismounted from his last.

Stevens is as anxious as owners Arnold and Ellen Zetcher and trainer Simon Callaghan to find out if Firing Line is as good as they think he is. Since his maiden win last November at Del Mar, Firing Line has suffered two heartbreaking losses to Dortmund, and Dortmund is on top of a whole load of lists touting Kentucky Derby contenders.

Firing Line, a son of the Lion Heart stallion Line of David, has not raced since the Feb. 7 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Stevens has worked the colt since then, along with regular exercise rider Paul Eddery.

“I worked him two works back, just cruising,” Stevens said. “Paul’s got him really switched off right now. I think his little bobble at the start of the Lewis and the way I had to ride him because of it taught me how intelligent he is, but he learned from that experience also. I observe him just about every day he trains. He’s been very businesslike in his gallops, and his move the other morning was as pretty a work as you’d ever want.”

That was Firing Line’s five-eighths in 59.80 seconds last Sunday.

“Obviously, we hope it’s a stepping-stone to bigger and better things,” Stevens said. “But there are Derby points involved, and the purse is serious. My feeling is that if we don’t run the right kind of race to earn those points, then we probably don’t want to be there on the big day anyway.”

Firing Line figures to continue the dominance of shippers in the Sunland Derby, which has been won the past two years by colts from the Bob Baffert stable. Steve Asmussen and Mike Machowsky, both previous Sunland Derby winners, have runners in the gate Sunday.

On paper, though, Firing Line towers over the field, which puts the pressure squarely on his rider. The temptation to be cute with the best horse in the race is something every jockey needs to learn to overcome.

“Bill Shoemaker gave me some advice when I was young: ‘Be a good passenger,’ ” Stevens said. “With Firing Line, I’m flying a fighter jet that’s fully armed, so by this time, I should know how to use the equipment.”

In a Hall of Fame career featuring 5,005 North American wins, including three in the Kentucky Derby and 10 in the Breeders’ Cup, plus a Dubai World Cup and four winners at Royal Ascot, it is hard to believe that there are any bridges Stevens has left to cross. And yet on Sunday, he will have a chance to win his first race at Sunland Park.

“I rode there once that I can recall,” Stevens said. “But I’m watching races from there when I can, and like most dirt tracks, speed will be dangerous. I’ll just try not to overthink it. I drew the 1 hole, so I’m going to do what I do when I ride good horses in big races. Put it this way: I’m not going to be tentative.”

Having exhausted the Sunland Derby, Stevens was asked to weigh in on recent racing news, beginning with the death of Allen Jerkens.

“I sat on the backstretch aboard ponies for a couple mornings with him after I retired and just listened to him tell stories,” Stevens said. “When I started back riding in early 2013, I was in Florida for the Eclipse Awards. I walked up on one of the trainers’ stands at Gulfstream, and there he was. ‘Jock,’ he says, ‘I thought you were completely nuts coming back. I didn’t know why or what you were doing. But I’ve been watching you, and you look better now than you did before you retired.’ I just started laughing.”

Stevens also is pleased to see four jockeys on the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot who he knows better than most from their years of competition: Craig Perret, Victor Espinoza, Corey Nakatani, and the late Chris Antley.

“Not to play any favorites, but Craig and Chris should have been in the Hall a long time ago,” Stevens said.

Especially Antley, with whom Stevens shared a special friendship.

“The jockeys that were fortunate to ride with him knew how gifted he was,” Stevens said. “He was good every day, but he was also the guy who rose to the occasion, the way all great riders do.”