02/11/2016 2:36PM

Hovdey: Stevens helps Om find his center


The rush to win whatever they can before Beholder returns to take names and break hearts begins in earnest on both coasts Saturday when older fillies and mares meet in Grade 2 events at 1 1/16 miles worth $200,000.

At Gulfstream Park, the Royal Delta offers the accomplished turf mare Sandiva a chance to take another water-related event – she’s won the Marshua’s River and the Suwannee River – but this time, she will have to do it on the main track. Only five are in opposition.

At Santa Anita Park, the Santa Maria has lured La Brea Stakes winner Birdatthewire and Santa Monica runner-up Tara’s Tango, a pair of 4-year-olds anxious to make their mark against an older mare like Yahilwa, who came within a neck of winning the Spinster last fall.

Gary Stevens will be riding Living The Life in the Santa Maria, and he’s glad to have the work. The jockey can be forgiven, however, if his thoughts stray to that day nearly five months ago in the Zenyatta Stakes, when he last felt the rush of Beholder beneath him in the afternoon.

Beholder is back in training now for Richard Mandella after a break in the wake of her 11th-hour scratch from the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland in late October.

“I watched her gallop a couple days earlier this week,” Stevens said Thursday morning. “She was getting around there pretty quick. I told Richard it didn’t look like it would take very long to get her back. He smiled.

“She looks bigger, stronger – and fluffier,” Stevens added. “I could hardly recognize her, but she was supposed to get a haircut yesterday.”

She did, courtesy of Zoe Cadman, the former jockey and TV racing analyst who is also hairstylist to the stars. The local warm snap after a chilly January has kept her clippers humming.

“I clipped her at 2 and 3 but not since,” Cadman said. “She’s so much bigger now it’s unbelievable. The only thing I don’t clip is her whiskers. She doesn’t like that.”

Meanwhile, the clean-shaven Stevens has a heaping plate full of stakes mounts primed for action. He’s already got a leg up on reigning sprint champ Runhappy, with whom he won the Malibu on Dec. 26, and rides the gifted Taris, the winner of the recent La Canada. Last weekend, Stevens won the Palos Verdes with Kobe’s Back, who could be dangerous now that he has learned to break with his field, and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes with Mor Spirit, who has the envious task of filling the American Pharoah shoes around the Bob Baffert barn.

A son of Eskendereya, Mor Spirit has no interest in dazzling his rivals. He seems to know he’ll get fed the same if he wins by a half-length or a pole. In the Los Alamitos Futurity, he won by 1 1/4 lengths at the end of the longest stretch this side of Fair Grounds. In the Robert B. Lewis, Mor Spirit looked as if he might be in trouble from the stubborn Uncle Lino and I Will Score, then all of a sudden, he was 1 1/2 lengths clear at the finish.

“I don’t think Mor Spirit’s ever going to be the kind of horse who’ll run off and hide,” Stevens said. “But when I stick his head on a target, he’s like a cat, and I’m dangling a mouse. All I have to do is say, ‘Go get it, boy.’ ”

In addition to Living The Life in the Santa Maria, Stevens will be back aboard Om in the Arcadia Stakes earlier on the Saturday program. The $200,000 event is another one of those salty turf miles that makes the division so entertaining, with Obviously, now 8, back at his preferred distance against the 4-year-olds Bolo, Prospect Park, and Om.

Stevens has been working with Om and trainer Dan Hendricks since last summer, when they first teamed to win the Del Mar Derby. The bang-zoom finish he displayed to win the Mathis Bros. Mile on Dec. 26 has been programmed through diligent works and a pre-race warm-up routine that has turned Om from a precocious speedball to a coiled pro.

“I’ve never been on a horse who enjoys his works as much as he does,” Stevens said. “He was pretty tough going off the other morning, but he knows by the signals that it was getting close to game time. His last sixteenth in his last race was as good a last sixteenth as I’ve ever felt on any turf horse I’ve ever ridden. And he’s still maturing.”

So is Stevens. The Hall of Famer turns 53 on March 6, and he just welcomed into this world a new grandchild, Trip Carter Stevens. His father, T.C. (for Tory Chad), runs the Tony Dutrow barn at Aqueduct while the boss is at Oaklawn.

“Now we’ve got a Little T.C.,” said the proud grandpa.

Believe it or not, Stevens has won just three races from 29 starts in 2016. All three wins were in stakes, and he leads the country in dollars per start, but there was a time when such inactivity would have driven him up a wall. Now, he’s learning to know better.

“I’m not going to be greedy,” Stevens said. “I know how fast things can turn, but I’ve got to be happy. I’ve got a pretty good arsenal right now.”