08/14/2013 3:11PM

Jay Hovdey: Stevens comeback looking like a million

Barbara D. Livingston
Gary Stevens, out of retirement after seven years, is enjoying renewed success.

The saga of Gary Stevens and his resurrection as an active Hall of Fame rider takes an operatic turn Saturday when he goes postward in the Arlington Million at Arlington Park aboard Indy Point.

The fact that Stevens has a serious chance to add a race like the Million to his growing list of achievements this season is remarkable enough. At the age of 50, and a grandfather to boot, Stevens pretty much has made everyone forget that he had spent seven years in retirement before getting back in the irons last January.

His Preakness victory aboard Oxbow was enough to make the effort worthwhile, and now he’s looking at the second half of the season populated not only by opportunities with Indy Point, but also Marketing Mix, who runs in the Beverly D. on Saturday, and a new association with champion filly Beholder, who returns to the races next month.

At Del Mar, where he has been spending the summer in his comfortable motor home among like-minded nomads camped across the street from the stable gate, Stevens finds himself tied for sixth in the standings with 11 winners from just 35 mounts, entering this week’s action. For a while, Stevens and his agent, Craig O’Bryan, seemed to be winning nearly every other race they rode, tickling the 40 percent mark.

“Craig meets me one day outside the jocks’ room, right after I’d finished second,” Stevens said Wednesday morning, with O’Bryan standing right there. “He’s not happy. ‘What are you trying to do,’ he says, ‘ruin my percentage?’ ”

They laughed, not only because it was true, but because they have enough shared history to keep their ups and downs in perspective – or at least as much perspective as jockeys and their agents are allowed. O’Bryan does not need to be reminded of where he was 10 years ago when he was watching the 2003 Arlington Million with his sons, Kyle and Brandon, as his jockey took the lead deep in the stretch aboard Storming Home.

“We were high-fiving, yelling at the TV, then all of a sudden we see Gary come off,” O’Bryan said. “It was a sick feeling. On top of that, you couldn’t tell if it happened before they hit the wire.”

It was, without question, the most bizarre finish to a major American horse race over the past half-century. Storming Home was on his way to a clear-cut win when he spooked from something to his left. Speculation centered on a photographer with a long lens and a loud motor drive, but as far as Storming Home was concerned it might as well have been a snarling mountain lion with fangs bared and claws out, ready to pounce. The horse veered to his right with such ferocity that Stevens was sent bouncing through the air before landing directly in front of the oncoming field. He was asked if he remembered any of what happened.

“I remember everything,” Stevens replied. “Mostly thanks to YouTube. Riders usually don’t want to see their spills, I know. I can’t seem to get away from that one. People ask me about it and I pull out my phone and show it to them. There’s a version of it put to the theme song from ‘Chariots of Fire.’ ”

Okay, now that’s funny in a twisted, whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of way. Stevens suffered some of the worst damage of his racing life in that incident, including a collapsed lung and fractured cervical vertebrae.

“The memory that sticks the most is the image of that hoof, right here,” he said, holding a hand barely inches from his face. Then he snapped his fingers. “That quick, I got this warm feeling and thought, ‘This is it.’ In that moment I gave up and thought, ‘Take me.’ ”

The moment passed, and much to his surprise Stevens found he was conscious and lying on the grass, his hand twitching, desperate for breath.

“I was hurting like a sonofabitch,” he said. “But I was so happy I was still alive.”

Two years later, Stevens retired, did some acting, some training, and some TV commentary, then came back this year, breathing fire. He is already The Story of 2013 no matter what happens, but he would like to win another Arlington Million, if only to dull the memory of the last time around.

Stevens was still attached to Storming Home when they crossed the line first in 2003. They were disqualified and placed fourth, a ruling with which Stevens could not argue, even though the announcement was greeted with a chorus of boos from the Arlington crowd watching the jockey being loaded into an ambulance when it was made.

Had his horse stayed on course, it would have been the third win for Stevens in the Million. His first two were not without their own, smaller dramas, beginning in 1990 with Golden Pheasant for trainer Charlie Whittingham.

“The week before the Million I worked him, and I didn’t like the way he was going at all,” Stevens recalled. “I told my agent I didn’t really want to ride him. He’s says, ‘Yeah? You want to tell Charlie Whittingham you don’t like the way his horse is going? Because I’m not.’ ”

With Stevens firmly attached, Golden Pheasant won by 1 1/4 lengths, beating a deep field that included With Approval, Steinlen, El Senor, and Prized. Stevens, now a Whittingham believer for life, added the Japan Cup the following year on Golden Pheasant. Then in 1997, Stevens was back in the thick of the Million mix as a last-minute replacement aboard Marlin, for Wayne Lukas.

“That was the one and only time I rode Marlin,” Stevens said. “Jose Santos had been on him, and he got days. Marlin won real easy, and I was thinking how much fun the rest of the year was going to be riding him. Then he took a really bad step galloping out, and that was his last race. That’s how quick things change in this game.”

No, really?