05/22/2013 3:14PM

Jay Hovdey: Scott Stevens bursting with sibling pride


Scott Stevens finished riding his three horses through the Minnesota mud at Canterbury Park last Saturday afternoon just in time to gather in the room with the other jocks to witness little brother Gary take Skyring wire to wire in the Dixie Handicap on the Pimlico undercard. Scott enjoyed the view, then proclaimed:

“Now watch him do the same thing right back in the Preakness.”

No fair, of course, because the Stevens brothers have been virtually joined at the cellphone for the past five months while Gary has crafted his remarkable comeback after seven years of watching the game from the sidelines. Scott obviously had prior knowledge of what his brother was about to pull off.

As it turns out, Gary didn’t tell Scott anything he hadn’t told anyone else who asked – that Oxbow’s Kentucky Derby was better than it looked, that the colt worked very well in his final Preakness prep at Churchill Downs, and that he’d let him roll away from the gate and then adjust to whatever happened next.

What happened next swelled Scott’s chest to bursting.

“I’m very proud of him,” Scott said this week, between racing days at Canterbury. “He was starting to get down on himself. He’d gone awhile without winning a race. We all do that, and you’re always the first person you blame, thinking you’re doing something wrong when you’re not running. But you’ve got to have the horse.

“Since he’s come back to riding we’ve talked more than we had in the past 15 years,” Scott added. “The best thing I can see about him coming back is that he’s changed his life away from the racetrack. He’s overcome some of the things he was struggling with, especially as far as drinking. That’s what I’m the most proud of.”

Gary has been up front about the personal turbulence beneath the façade of the seven years since his 2005 retirement, during which he established a presence as a racing analyst for NBC and HRTV and played a recurring role on the single season of the HBO series “Luck.”

“Most people would look at having a career like that after retiring as a jockey and say you’re crazy to want anything else,” Scott said. “But he still had that desire, and he had the determination that once he started to do it he was going to prove to himself that he could do it. All I could do was give him all the support I could.”

Scott Stevens will be 53 in October. Gary turned 50 in March. Both of them, to a certain degree, are medical miracles. At the very least they are testimony to the recuperative powers of the human body, as long as that body has spent a lifetime dedicated to athletic pursuits.

Gary’s troublesome knees have been well documented, along with the stories behind the scars, the knots and lingering aches from injuries inside and out. (The screaming eagle tattoo on his back is another deal altogether.)

Scott made the worst kind of headlines in July of 2010 at Canterbury Downs when his front-running mount fractured both forelegs in the deep stretch. Stevens was so badly mangled he had to be evacuated by helicopter. He’d broken both collarbones, his sternum, several vertabrae, a whole rack of ribs, and suffered a torn spleen and nerve damage. The scariest part was the two collapsed lungs.

“There’s been lots of times I’ve had the wind knocked out of me, and I’m thinking, okay, in a minute it will come back,” Stevens recalled a year later. “But it got worse and worse. They had oxygen on me, and it wasn’t making any difference. Then I started getting into a panic. Later on I thanked my doctor for saving me, and he said I needed to thank the paramedics. If they hadn’t decompressed my chest right there on the racetrack, I had about another minute.”

So how did he respond to the near-death experience? By that November, Scott was riding again at Turf Paradise, his home track. He returned to Canterbury the following May and, in his first night, successfully finished the race he’d started the previous July by winning with his second mount.

More recently, Scott wrapped up the long Turf Paradise 2012-13 season as the second-leading rider, with 95 wins, behind Geovanni Franco’s 109. Franco is 21. They’re both riding now at Canterbury, where Stevens is the second all-time leading rider.

“It seems as though every year you’ve got to re-prove yourself,” he said. “But knock on wood I’ve been feeling real good. The pinky and ring finger on my right hand don’t have all the feeling back, and I still don’t have a lot of feeling in the right side of my chest. But as far as hurting anywhere, I’m pretty much healthy. I can honest to god tell you that when I wake up in the morning I’m in no particular pain. It’s the dangedest thing.”

At their ages the Stevens boys are unusual, but brother acts are not uncommon. Look at the Ortiz siblings in New York – Irad and Jose – or the bi-coastal Espinozas, Jose and Victor. Kenny and Corey Black were both headline apprentices who went on to solid careers as journeymen. Hall of Famer Eddie Maple always deferred to his younger brother Sam as the best rider in the family. Hall of Famer Milo Valenzuela had Angel and Mario to keep him company, while Mr. and Mrs. Fred Turcotte produced no fewer than five riders, including Hall of Famer Ron.

Gary Stevens has won 4,908 races, brother Scott has won 4,200, and they’re both scheduled to be in action this weekend. They could ride until they’re 75 and still not catch the all-time leading brother act of Russell Baze, with nearly 12,000 and counting, and his younger brother Dale, winner of over 1,700 races, racing’s version of Hank Aaron and brother Tommie on the all-time home run list. It is possible, though, that Scott and Gary could keep at it long enough to top Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, with 7,141 wins, and his older brother Gregg, who retired with 2,403 of his own.

“The people up here at Canterbury heard that Gary wanted to come up for a visit,” Scott said. “They were wondering if we’d want to ride against each other.”

We’ll see. The last time the Stevens brothers competed against each other with regularity was in the early 1980’s back home at Les Bois Park. Gary spent most of his time eating Scott’s dust and ended up leaving town. We know how the story went from there. We just don’t have an ending yet.