01/23/2014 3:23PM

Jay Hovdey: Gary Stevens plotting his encore


So what does Gary Stevens do for an encore? Join the circus? Ride sidesaddle? Set himself on fire?

Fairy tales are supposed to be fantasies, but Stevens abused the privilege. During his comeback year of 2013, most of it spent at the age of 50, his horses won the Preakness, two Breeders’ Cup races, 15 other graded stakes, and just shy of $11.4 million. Stevens also rode two champions and was a finalist for the Eclipse Award, doing it all from just 369 mounts and 66 wins.

On March 6 Stevens will turn 51 whether he wants to or not. The calendar is a brutal mistress, but for some she cuts a little slack.

Johnny Longden turned 51 in Feburary of 1958 and had a so-so season, with 147 winners, well short of the 320 he brought home during a banner campaign in 1956. It should be noted that in 1958 the sporting press was going along with the idea that Longden was born in 1910 instead of 1907, and Longden did not bother to correct them. By the time he retired in 1966, with a spectacular victory in the San Juan Capistrano, Longden had owned up to all of his 59 years, along with a record 6,032 winners.

Bill Shoemaker turned 51 in August of 1982. That season he won 113 races and accounted for purses of $4.6 million, good for ninth in the national standings. Shoemaker’s 24 stakes wins included the Blue Grass, the Kentucky Oaks, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Vanity Handicap. Four years later he won his fourth Kentucky Derby on Ferdinand.

Laffit Pincay turned 51 at the end of 1997, during which he fractured his pelvis and three ribs in an accident at Santa Anita. The 1998 season was going a little better until he fractured his collarbone – for the 12th time – and another rib in a fall at Del Mar. Pincay rallied in 1999 to win 171 races and break Shoemaker’s all-time record, then rode until he was 56.

Stevens wasted no time getting a jump on 2014. Last Saturday at Gulfstream Park he teamed with Mucho Macho Man, his Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, for a paid workout in the $400,000 Sunshine Millions Classic courtesy of trainer Kathy Ritvo and owners Dean and Patti Reeves. This Saturday Stevens will be aboard La Brea Stakes winner Heir Kitty in the Grade 2 Santa Monica at Santa Anita as well as mounts in three of the four California Cup races on the program.

“I was more nervous last Saturday than I was before the Breeders’ Cup,” Stevens confessed. “In a situation like that, the only way he could lose was jockey error, or for him to do something like stumble leaving the gate.”

Neither happened. Mucho Macho Man, now 6, walked his beat by 14 lengths and effectively fired the first shot in what could be a very entertaining season among the older horse division, with Will Take Charge, Game On Dude, and Cross Traffic poised in the wings. Stevens thinks he’s got the right horse.

“Physically, he’s grown since the Breeders’ Cup,” Stevens said. “Kathy says she’s going to have to get a stool to put a saddle on him. What I really liked was how he’d taken a step forward mentally. He’d always been professional for me, but he could be a little more aggressive than he needed to be. This time he was so cool in the post parade I was thinking it was either a very good sign or a very bad one. It was all good.”

With opportunities aplenty on horses like Mucho Macho Man, Beholder, and She’s a Tiger in the coming months, Stevens could have a 2014 to rival 2013, as long as the knees hold up. It was the famous Stevens knees that sent him into retirement in the first place.

“My left knee is excellent, by my ratings,” Stevens said. “My right knee has good days and bad days, but even the bad days are better than the old bad days used to be.”

Stevens has had “11 or 12” surgeries on his right knee and three on the left, all but one of them arthroscopic.

“With linaments and a lot of stretching I can get the right knee good in a pretty short time,” Stevens said. “If I have pain now it’s more in my lower leg where I’ve built the right calf up to support the knee. I need to stay hydrated or I can get cramps, and then the whole leg can ache.”

At the Eclipse Awards ceremony Stevens offered heartfelt comments in accepting the award for the Breeders’ Cup Classic as the Moment of the Year, then later watched Javier Castellano win the Eclipse Award for jockeys.

“I guess I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little bit disappointed,” Stevens offered. “But I thought back to this time last year, when I was just hoping to get some opportunities. And man did I get some.

“So I’m not going to cry over a trophy,” he added. “The only thing is, that one Eclipse I have is very lonely, and sure would like some company.”