01/11/2017 3:16PM

Hovdey: Will of iron runs in Stevens brothers' blood


Scott Stevens was in a funk. The new year was 10 days old, and after 17 rides at Turf Paradise he still was looking for his first winner.

“Any way you look at it, I’m oh-for-seventeen,” Stevens said. “I thought I’d keep last year right on going. But at least I had a second and a third yesterday, and it looks like I’m on some live ones today.”

Such sentiments were not unusual from an athlete who had been competing in a rough-and-tumble sport for 40 years. The mindset never leaves. Stevens, 57, was only a few hours away from the 31,455th official ride of a career that has stretched from the wilds of the Northwest to the upper reaches of America’s heartland. He has ridden at tracks both major and minor, through heat, frost, and high winds while surviving a litany of injuries that would have grounded a Navy Seal.

Stevens enjoyed one of his finest seasons ever in 2016, winning 142 races from just 577 rides. The purses earned by his mounts came to $1,678,465, his highest take since 2005, and he ended the year at the top of the Turf Paradise standings, with four months left to the meet in 2017.

“The weather’s been bad here, but at least we’re supposed to get back on the turf this weekend,” Stevens said. “That’s where a lot of my business is.”

Track condition forced the cancellation of two Turf Paradise programs at the start of the year and all but one race of another.

“As far as the main track goes, you’ve got to realize that with the heat here most of the time you can’t have as much sand on the track as other tracks,” Stevens noted. “That means you’ve got to get a good seal on it when it rains, but then you can be in trouble if it rains when you race.”

After a near-fatal fall at Canterbury Downs in July of 2010, Stevens is a miracle man to be riding at all. That day he fractured both clavicles, broke his sternum and several ribs, and suffered a torn spleen. Nerve damage to the small finger of his right hand lingers, but otherwise he says he wakes up every day without pain.

Such durability clearly runs in the family. Scott is the older brother of Gary Stevens, the Hall of Famer currently recuperating from hip replacement surgery. Gary, 53, made a spectacular return from knee replacement surgery in 2014 and hopes to do the same this time around.

“There’s nobody tougher than Gary,” his brother said. “Although he did call me from the road the other day in Reno, telling me how his hip hurt so much in the cold weather he wasn’t sure he’d do it if he had it to do over again. I told him it had been barely three weeks, and not be so hard on himself.”

There have been any number of successful brother acts in the jockey profession, among them the Maples (Eddie and Sam), the Blacks (Kenny and Corey), the McCarrons (Chris and Gregg), and the Valenzuelas (Milo, Mario, and Angel). But until Jose and Irad Ortiz Jr. have been around a while longer, the Stevens boys remain the only brothers to have won more than 4,000 races each.

Gary is sitting on 5,083 official North American wins, while Scott began Wednesday with 4,640. He was asked if it is his goal to catch his little brother.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Scott said with a laugh. “Although, if I can have a few more years like last year, you never know.”

Last year, after wrapping up his eighth Turf Paradise riding title, Stevens cherry-picked his way through the middle of the year with delightful success.

“I rode in Denver, four times in Iowa, and then on up to Canterbury for the last part of their season,” said Stevens, who travels by mobile home. “I even rode at Sandy Downs for the first time in the Idaho Cup races.”

As homecomings go, it was interesting. Idaho racing is hanging by a thread, with the end of the Instant Racing games prompting the closure of Les Bois Park. Sandy Downs, near Idaho Falls, staged the Cup races and lured native Idaho boy Stevens.

“They were $15,000 purses,” Stevens said. “The jockeys room was a shed, without running water, and we had an outhouse. The track itself wasn’t bad, although it was a three-quarter-mile track with half-mile [track] turns, so the stretch was real long. When I got there I was wondering what I was there for, but I did win three of the four Cup races. And I did get to spend two weeks in Boise with my parents while I was there.”

Saturday is a big day at Turf Paradise, with the $75,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile and the $30,000 Glendale Handicap, both scheduled for the grass. Stevens is on live mounts in both stakes, but he is just as excited to be riding the Iowa-bred Kera Kera in a $20,000 allowance event earlier on the card. The trainer is Satchel Stevens, son of the oldest Stevens brother, Craig.

“I won with her a couple weeks ago, did well with her in Iowa as well,” Scott said. “She ended up an Iowa-bred champion.”