10/02/2013 3:15PM

Jay Hovdey: Gary Stevens getting his second wind

Benoit & Associates
Gary Stevens guides Beholder to victory in the Zenyatta Stakes, one of three major victories for the 50-year-old Stevens last weekend.

It wasn’t enough that Gary Stevens won three major stakes over the weekend at Santa Anita Park to set the table for a potentially big Breeders’ Cup, while giving further lie to the fact that he is coming off a seven-year retirement at the age of 50.

Instead of kicking back on Monday with a leisurely round of golf, Stevens was in New York, where on Monday night he attended the 28th annual Great Sports Legends Dinner benefitting the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis, held at the Waldorf Astoria. Stevens was honored alongside Dave Winfield, James Worthy, Terry Bradshaw, Nick Faldo, Antron Brown, and Olympic gold medalists Shawn Johnson and Teresa Edwards.

As a bona fide sports star, Stevens could relate with the others, but he has the most in common with Brown, who reigns as the 2012 Top Fuel National Hot Rod Association champion. One goes farther and the other goes faster, but they both have to get there first.

Of course, every time a famous Thoroughbred racing personality wanders off the reservation they must brace for a reality check. When Stevens took his place at a table full of well-heeled contributors he was asked, “So, what’s your sport.” Stevens suppressed a sigh and politely suggested they stay tuned for his introduction highlight reel. Oh, that Gary Stevens.

Besides his three Kentucky Derby wins or any of his eight Breeders’ Cups victories, they just as easily could have shown fresh Stevens clips from the weekend’s Zenyatta Stakes victory of Beholder, the Awesome Again score by Mucho Macho Man, or the John Henry Turf Championship triumph of Indy Point. Stevens also had heartbreakingly close seconds with She’s a Tiger in the Chandelier Stakes and with defending champ Marketing Mix in the Rodeo Drive, who lost a tough battle with Tiz Flirtatious.

Typical of his personality, Stevens spent as much time Saturday night thinking about the losses as he did the wins.

“I didn’t sleep real good,” Stevens said. “I would like to have the Rodeo Drive back. I think I could have done something to have made a difference. I wish I’d have just dropped my mare’s head the first time around and turned it into more of a stamina race. Instead I tried to crank her up at the half mile pole. Still, she ran huge.”

The 2-year-old filly She’s a Tiger was coming off a victory with Stevens in the Del Mar Debutante when she lost in the final yards to Secret Compass.

“We missed two works with her after the Debutante,” Stevens said. “On Saturday, when I hit the eighth pole and she swapped leads, she literally felt like she was going to lay down, she was that tired. When the winner came up on her hip, that just showed the fight in her. She was digging for something that wasn’t there.

“Actually, I liked her race in the Chandelier better than her win in the Debutante,” Stevens added. “I liked the way she went to the gate, the way she rated for me, and the fight she showed. Going forward to the Breeders’ Cup, I think she’s going to benefit more than any of the horses I rode last weekend.”

The victory of Mucho Macho Man gives Stevens his best chance at an elusive first victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In his best finishes of 14 tries he was second with Silver Charm at Churchill Downs in 1998 and second with Bertrando, behind the 133-1 Arcangues, at Santa Anita in 1993.

“I wouldn’t have done anything differently in either race,” Stevens said. “I just have to accept the fact that it just wasn’t meant to be. Whether or not it’s meant to be with Mucho Macho Man, we’ll know in a month.”

In 2005, Stevens was ready to ride Santa Anita Handicap winner Rock Hard Ten in the Classic at Belmont Park, but he ended up on the sidelines when his colt came up with a foot problem two days before the race. One month later, Stevens waved goodbye in what was supposed to be his last race, at Churchill Downs.

That was then. Now, after seven years on the ground, Stevens is back in the saddle and busy making sports history as one of those rare champion athletes who defy the calendar. Baseball has had Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro. Hockey had Gordie Howe. Football had George Blanda, and golf had Sam Snead, who was 62 when he tied for third in the 1974 PGA.

Stevens, however, has decided that he no longer needs to be reminded that he is 50 (he carries a driver’s license for proof) or that he is in the midst of a comeback.

“The comeback’s over,” he said. “I’m back. The comeback was the first two months. Believe it or not, I’m just now getting to what I consider a level of full fitness, a place I haven’t been for 16 years. People were worried – including myself – if this body was going to hold up. I didn’t know where I’d be when October hit, but I feel better now than I did the last 10 years I rode before I retired in ’05. In fact, when I was on eight last Saturday, I felt better riding the last four than I did the first four. That’s like the old days.”

The Stevens record for 2013 already includes a victory in the Preakness Stakes aboard Oxbow and earnings by his mounts of $5.7 million from just 306 rides, through last Sunday (Javier Castellano tops the standings at $18.8 million from 1,284 mounts). Any kind of victory on the Breeders’ Cup programs of Nov. 1 and 2 at Santa Anita would be icing on a remarkable season, and might even get him recognized more readily at the next Sports Legends Dinner.

“Terry Bradshaw knew all about the races last weekend,” Stevens said of his fellow honoree. “He owns a piece of Graydar, who won the Kelso the other day at Belmont, so he was very interested in talking about the Breeders’ Cup.”

Did that put Stevens on the hustle?

“No, not really,” he replied. “But I did mention to him I was open in the Dirt Mile.”