10/09/2014 2:17PM

Hovdey: Stevens takes up a bit on comeback trail

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Barbara D. Livingston
Gary Stevens recovery from knee-replacement surgery has gone well, but still needs some time before he begins his comeback in earnest.

There is a place called Garyland, sometimes known as Stevensville. Those who have been to Garyland never forget the experience. Those who have yet to visit are advised to pack light and keep the tank full.

Garyland has an elevation of 64 inches and a population of one. You will not find it on a map. Don’t trouble your GPS.

Atlantis, Shangri-la, Valhalla – at least those places makes sense. But Garyland? No, Garyland is a world unto itself. There are no borders and few limitations.

The flag of Garyland is a blood-red field upon which is displayed “911” in vibrant gold. The national anthem is “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” the long version, during which everyone must remain standing, whether their knees ache or not.

The mayor of Garyland is also its army, navy, and air force, and he has the battle scars to prove it, so many scars that he might as well be covered in zippers to make it easier on the surgeons.

The mayor is also Garyland’s main industry and chief export. Recently, there has been an interruption in the flow of goods from Garyland, owing to an orthopedic retooling of the main industry and chief export. But lately there were rumblings that the machine would be cranked up ahead of schedule, against all odds, and that the flag of Garyland would be flying high once again.

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:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

As everyone following the racing world knows, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens had his right knee replaced in an operation conducted last July 25 in a specialized clinic in Santa Monica, Calif. What they replaced it with has not been revealed. Educated guesses include the U-joint from a Patton tank, a piece of Stonehenge, or the petrified skull of Viking king Eric the Red.

After a month of pain Stevens would not have wished upon his worst enemy, or Angel Cordero in a tight finish, Gary’s new knee suddenly breathed a sigh of surrender and began to behave as originally advertised. His rehab sessions went from agonizing ordeals to encouraging exercises in comprehensive fitness. He walked without affect, tested his golf swing, and climbed stairs just for the fun of it.

It is a short drive from home to Santa Anita for Stevens, so when the track opened for training in early September he was on the scene with regularity, telling people there would be a comeback, sooner than later. Sooner, as in Oct. 31 or so, a date coincidentally falling on Day 1 of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Championships at Santa Anita Park.

Then he paid a visit to his doctor.

“I’ve been doing every normal activity I’d done in the past, except even better,” Stevens said earlier this week. “My doctor told me I was way ahead of schedule on everything and it looked great. Then I showed him a video of me on my Equicizer.”

The Equicizer, for those not into implements of physical torture, is an indispensible piece of equipment invented by former jockey Frank Lovato Jr. that lets a rider simulate the posture and physical intensity of finishing a race on the back of a Thoroughbred. Injured jockeys use it for rehab. Active jockeys use it for fitness and warm-ups. I used it once after a bottle of merlot and woke up in the backseat of my cousin’s station wagon. Never mind.

Gary’s doctor – the man who replaced the knee – was impressed but was not sure how to take the video. For Stevens, it was obvious.

“Can I get on horses tomorrow,” he asked.

The doctor took a step back.

“Yeah, sure,” he said – this is Gary’s version, of course. “Then we’ll see you back here in two weeks and be putting in a new knee. You want to do that again?”

It was a crushing blow, fed in part by the blessed relief from the arthritic pain that had plagued the famous Stevens knee for most of the past 25 years. The knee he rehabbed in more conventional fashion to stage a comeback, in 2013, after nearly seven years on the sidelines, carried him to a remarkable season climaxed by victories in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Mucho Macho Man and Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Beholder last fall.

The doctor’s declaration brought no joy to Garyland. He had spun a miracle before, at the age of 50, so why not another at age 51?

“I even had a couple of horses offered to me to ride in the Breeders’ Cup,” Stevens said. “It was a long drive home with my wife, Angie, and not much said. It made me take a pull back and think more like Richard Mandella does with his horses – what’s the rush?”

Part of the process of a knee replacement, at least in Stevens’s case, requires complete healing of the attached femur, the largest bone in the human body. The femur, no matter what, takes in this case about 12 weeks to heal, and without the full support of a healthy upper leg, an early return would be foolish, and futile.

“The adrenalin was really pumping, telling my body what I needed to do to make it back for the Breeders’ Cup, so there was a letdown physically as well as emotionally,” Stevens said. “I can go back to getting on horses if I want in a week to 10 days, and I’ll take things at my own speed. My go date is now Dec. 26.”

That happens to be opening day of the Santa Anita winter-spring meet, plenty of time to make plans for the next trip to Garyland.