01/23/2014 3:23PM

Jay Hovdey: Gary Stevens plotting his encore

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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.”

 

Dennis Ochs More than 1 year ago
2013 was a great year for Gary. I hope he has another Banner Year in 2014!
Randy Atkins More than 1 year ago
lookin' good Gary...help me win some more money this year
Tiffini Brinson More than 1 year ago
Gary deserves all the success he has had last year and in the year to come! He has always been atop the list as one of the greats! He deserved the Eclipse this year, and I hope this time next year, that "lonely" one he already has, finds the company of another!
ctgreyhound More than 1 year ago
May every year be YOUR year Gary. Will be watching with much anticipation for your continued success.
Green1John More than 1 year ago
Best of racing luck in 2014, Gary. May all your rides be safe. A true gentleman!
Debbie West More than 1 year ago
Good Luck Gary! You are one of the best. A true horseman who care about the horse and puts the horse first - just like Mike Smith. Kudos to both of you. I'm happy you're on Mucho. He seems to like you and run well for you. Looking forward to seeing both of you win the 2014 Classic and Mucho being HOY in 2014. Stay safe and keep him and Beholder safe. She's awesome as well.
Ricky Williams More than 1 year ago
Good things happen to good People! and he's damn good. Best of luck in 2014.
Terri Zeitz More than 1 year ago
What a pleasure it was seeing Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions. It was a South Florida love fest for his many fans. We all screamed at the finish line. And Frank Stronach, who owns Macho Uno and Gulfstream Park, was in the winner's circle to award the horse and his connections. It was an awesome experience as he's our hometown boy, who was running at his granpa's track (Holy Bull). And in many ways, he is grandpa's (The Bull) boy. Kudos to Team Macho and Gulfstream Park for their generosity in sharing the horse and his connections with his fans.
RayC More than 1 year ago
Way to go gary now come to tampa to ride a few before you retire again give us fans here some thrill to.Ray
john More than 1 year ago
Gary, it's great that you proved to yourself that you could ride at the top again...and you got that elusive BC Classic win. Nothing left to do......don't risk your life anymore. You could have been killed in that Arlington Park fall after the finish line. Don't push your luck! Enjoy the rest of your life!