02/20/2013 4:25PM

Jay Hovdey: Age hasn't diminished competitive fire in Smith, Stevens

Shigeki Kikkawa
Great Hot, ridden by 49-year-old Gary Stevens, wins the Santa Maria last weekend at Santa Anita.

Just to recap:

Bill Shoemaker turned 47 in August 1978. Two months later, he rode Exceller to victory over Seattle Slew in a Jockey Club Gold Cup for the ages.

On Aug. 26, 1979, one week after celebrating his 48th birthday, Shoemaker climbed aboard Spectacular Bid in an allowance race at Delaware Park. They became inseparable after that, winning 12 of their 13 collaborations over the ensuing 13 months and the title as 1980 Horse of the Year.

In August 1981, having just turned 50, Shoemaker marked the milestone with a thriller aboard John Henry in the inaugural running of the Arlington Million. The race went a long way toward John Henry’s selection as Horse of the Year, nor did it hurt Shoemaker’s cause. Not only was he honored with a Special Eclipse Award extolling the virtues of his long career, Shoemaker also outpolled such young guns as Laffit Pincay, Angel Cordero Jr., and Sandy Hawley for the traditional Eclipse Award as the year’s outstanding jockey.

Then again, Shoemaker had an advantage. He was a freak, a genetic anomaly, an artist in jockey’s drag who approached race-riding the way Monet romanced a canvas. Shoemaker painted his masterpieces for nearly as long as Monet and did it at the peak of the sport, until he retired in January 1990.

Such boldface historical footnotes help put the antics of those Sunshine Boys Mike Smith, 47, and Gary Stevens, 49, into perspective. Last week, they were on fine display, with Stevens winning the Santa Maria Stakes aboard the 9-1 shot Great Hot and Smith doing cross-country duty with champion Royal Delta in the Sabin Stakes at Gulfstream and Breeders’ Cup winner Mizdirection in the Buena Vista at Santa Anita Park.

Of course, the case can be made that Smith was on much-the-best mares and shame on him if they didn’t get the job done, or that Stevens was able to take advantage of a listless pace and a short field to take Great Hot wire to wire. Give the same set of circumstances to Velazquez, Napravnik, or Gomez and watch the same thing happen, right? Probably yes.

So what’s the big deal? Their ages do not set Smith and Stevens cleanly apart, not with Edgar Prado, 45, on the march again in Florida, Calvin Borel, 46, back in action at Oaklawn Park, and Russell Baze, 52, still maintaining his stranglehold on Golden Gate Fields. Neither do they ride the daily volume of such high-class workhorses like Bejarano, Rosario, or Castellano.

What Stevens and Smith have done, though, is defy the idea that all glory fades with the merciless erosion of skills, and that every professional athlete must answer to what Robert Penn Warren called “the awful responsibility of time.” At least for now.

In Stevens’s case, time had already had its way with his damaged knees, costing him seven years worth of what could have been a highly profitable run as a mature rider in his 40s. Smith, for his part, has manufactured nothing less than a small medical miracle in rehabilitating two fractured vertebrae sustained in a 1998 accident at Saratoga, when he was given the choice of surgery and declined. Since then, he has maintained a rigorous conditioning routine that gives support to the damaged spine.

“He’s been an inspiration for my comeback,” said Stevens, who returned to the saddle on Jan. 6. “To watch this guy work out shows his love and devotion to the sport. What he does to keep himself fit he has to do because of his back injury. I think he knows that if he was to stop he’d be in a lot of pain.”

Most riders are in awe of Smith’s gym rat dedication.

“Nobody can stay with him,” Stevens said. “He’s a freak. Very intense. When he started, Mike was light and he wanted to get bigger and stronger. Now he looks like a body builder, in perfect proportion. With me, if I did the same kind of weights he does I’d just get too thick. I’m built like my dad, barrel chest and big shoulders.”

When Stevens retired in 2005, he had won 4,888 races, two national championships, eight Triple Crown events, and eight Breeders’ Cups. At that same point in time, Smith had won 4,520 races, two national championships, the Derby, the Preakness, and 10 Breeders’ Cups.

While Stevens was on the sidelines, veering to a career as a racing broadcaster and actor, Smith won another seven Breeders’ Cup events, added the Belmont Stakes to his r é sum é , and enjoyed a giddy three-year affair with Zenyatta.

“I know,” Stevens said. “I was watching him. For my money, there’s nobody better when the stakes are high.”

The admiration is mutual.

“I think Gary’s come back the right way,” Smith said. “He looks better than before he retired, in a whole lot better shape. I couldn’t believe the difference. I mean, the muscle memory would still be there with a guy like him. It just was underneath a couple layers.

“It’s just fun having him back in the room,” Smith added. “Watching him ride pumps me up. You hear athletes say how much they love to play with a great player because it brings their game up to a different level, and he does that.”

Though they have yet to mix it up for high stakes, Smith and Stevens did dominate the Buena Vista.

“It was pretty cool the other day, a couple of old fart Hall of Famers running one-two,” noted Stevens, who was second to Mizdirection and Smith with the Brazilian mare In the Stars. “I would have enjoyed it a lot more being on the winning end. But he took me to school a little bit coming into the lane, and when I got out he was gone.”

Competitive to a fault, they can even compare show biz notes, although Smith, who was part of the “Jockeys” reality show, concedes Stevens (“Seabiscuit,” “Luck”) the advantage.

“No argument there,” Smith said with a laugh. “Although, I did fool myself a couple times.”