03/08/2013 4:08PM

Jay Hovdey: Gary Stevens, now 50, riding like a youngster

Shigeki Kikkawa
Gary Stevens rode Slim Shadey to victory in the San Marcos Stakes (above) and on Sunday rides longshot Quizzical in the $100,000 Las Flores Handicap.

Two months into his return, Gary Stevens has pretty much dismissed all suspicions that his comeback was an ego-driven publicity stunt designed to revive his flagging self-esteem and prove that he is still more than the sum of the parts he has played in movies and on TV.

The kid can ride.

Those who may have lingering doubts need only call up the video replay of last Sunday’s feature race at Santa Anita, an unheralded event with a $60,000 purse in which Stevens rode the Smarty Jones colt Smart Ellis for Richard Mandella. Whatever it was that Stevens communicated to Smart Ellis before and during the race should be bottled and sold wherever Thoroughbreds are pitted against each other for sport and profit, because this was not the same horse who had been floundering in stakes both large and small since last summer. Yes, it was an allowance race, but no, he did not win like an allowance horse.

Three days later, Stevens and his wife, Angie, celebrated his 50th birthday with a shopping spree, during which he went down another inch in waist size for a pair of jeans.

“I’ve gone from 29 to 28 to 27,” Stevens said. “I’ve got clothes for every weight division.”

That evening Gary and Angie gathered with racetrack friends at The Derby restaurant in Arcadia, the joint once owned by the legendary George Woolf. It is said Woolf’s ghost still haunts the place, which makes sense since he was killed right down the street at Santa Anita Park. But whenever Stevens shows up the spook gets to take the night off.

“I celebrated my 30th, 40th, and now 50th birthday at The Derby,” Stevens said. “The 40th was a surprise party Angie threw me after wrapping ‘Seabiscuit.’ ”

Stevens played George Woolf in that 2003 Oscar-nominated film.

The following day it was back to work, interrupted briefly by a sheet cake in the jockeys’ room and an off-key rendering of “Happy Birthday to You.” When reached Friday, Stevens was still cracking up from the reaction of a few of the young’uns, including the 30-year-olds Rafael Bejarano and Edwin Maldonado, currently running 1-3 in the Santa Anita standings.

“Bejarano goes, ‘How old are you?’ ” Stevens said. “I said, ‘I’m fifty.’ His eyes got big like this. He didn’t have a clue. I said, ‘This robe I’m wearing is probably older than you are.’ ”

Stevens will try to add to the three stakes he’s already won this year on Sunday at Santa Anita when he rides longshot Quizzical in the $100,000 Las Flores Handicap against local division leader Teddy’s Promise and the consistent Sugarinthemorning. In the meantime, Stevens and his agent, John Perrotta, will continue seek opportunities far and wide while trying to serve the California customers who have given trajectory to the comeback. There was talk of Stevens moving to Keeneland for the spring meet, but nothing has been cast in stone.

“I owe a lot to California racing, and to the people who’ve had faith in me coming back,” Stevens said. “It’s one thing to say you just want to ride stakes races and will go anywhere to do it. Whether or not that means basing out of California or somewhere else I don’t know yet. One thing is definite – I do want to ride Del Mar.”

As a student of his profession’s colorful history, Stevens appreciates that he is not exactly breaking new ground. Woolf would head for the hills to hunt and fish for months on end, then reappear to gobble up stakes races like he’d never missed a day. Julie Krone, the head of this reporter’s household, said sayonara for three years in her late 30s, then came back to win a Breeders’ Cup race and ride a champion. Then there was Earl Sande, the preeminent jockey of the 1920s, who walked away from riding for more than a year and then returned in 1930 expressly to ride the emerging 3-year-old Gallant Fox for William Woodward and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

Stevens feels a deep kinship with Sande, and not only because they both cut their teeth riding the Idaho fairs. Stevens is from Caldwell, up near Boise, while Sande, who was born in South Dakota, grew up downstate toward Pocatello on a farm near the town of American Falls.

“That was an Idaho guy who made it big long before I ever did,” Stevens said. “A member of his family ended up following my early career and would write to me often.”

Sande’s career was mythic from all angles, and not only because he was immortalized in verse by Damon Runyon, hung out with Jack Dempsey and Ring Lardner, and starred in a silent flick called “That Handy Guy.”

In just eight rides, Sande won the Kentucky Derby three times and came within a head of winning a fourth. In the 1925 international match race at Belmont Park that captured the imagination of two continents, it was Sande carrying the stars and stripes aboard Zev in their victory over England’s Papyrus. If there was a good horse in training between 1918 and 1928, Sande probably was on board at least once, among them Man o’ War, Sir Barton, Black Maria, Crusader, Exterminator, Grey Lag, Old Rosebud, Osmond, and Sarazen. Sande’s story is wonderfully told in Richard J. Maturi’s biography, “The Earl Sande Saga,” which was updated and expanded in a 2010 paperback edition.

Just as Stevens could no longer handle the pain in his knees when he retired in 2005, Sande turned his back on a juicy contract at the end of the 1928 season to nurse not only his battered body, but also a broken heart after his wife, Marion, died that year from an infection. Sande bought a few horses, trained them, and even rode them where he was allowed, but with little success. Still, it took a horse like Gallant Fox to fan the embers. Together, they won 9 of 10 races in 1930, including the Triple Crown.

Stevens has tried training, as well as acting and retirement, but in the end he identifies primarily with the quote attributed to Sande in the summer of 1924, when everyone thought he was through after breaking his left leg in three places at Saratoga:

“If a guy can’t ride, he’s not living.”

“There’s a lot in common, yeah,” Stevens said, “except that I would very much like to find a Gallant Fox.”