01/04/2013 4:42PM

Jay Hovdey: Stevens simply returning to the job he does best

Barbara D. Livingston
Seven years after his retirement, 49-year-old Gary Stevens returns to the saddle on Sunday.

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

– “The Great Gatsby”

Chris McCarron, age 57, is a retired Hall of Fame jockey who runs the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky. By McCarron’s count, the 19 graduates of his program currently competing in North America have won more than 1,700 races. So what was McCarron’s reaction to the announcement that fellow Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, age 49, is coming out of retirement?

“I guess I’m not making jockeys fast enough,” he said.

Maybe not. But the return of Stevens in the sixth race on Sunday at Santa Anita and whatever lies beyond is not an issue of inventory. There are plenty of riders to fill the dwindling number of saddles attached to the available horses, especially in California. McCarron’s program is still young, and therefore has not had sufficient time to produce a jockey like Gary Stevens. If it ever does at all.

Stevens is a George Patton kind of athlete. He is truly happy only when he’s at war. His decision to go back to work after a seven-year break should surprise no one who knows him, any more than the vivid imprint of his rides aboard horses like Silver Charm, Point Given, Winning Colors, Gentlemen, Serena’s Song, Rock Hard Ten, War Chant, One Dreamer, Farma Way, Larry the Legend and Bertrando can be erased from the racing mind’s eye.

As a reporter I have been in for the long haul with Stevens, from his earliest incarnation as a young, one-dimensional speed freak, through a rewarding era as a hardened journeyman of sophisticated polish, to his vagabond days as an expensive gun for hire in Hong Kong, England and France. I watched him survive a near-death experience when he was nearly dropped by Angel Cordero at the 1984 Breeders’ Cup, Gary’s first turn on the national stage. I’ve been at his hospital bedsides, bearing witness to broken bones, torn shoulders, cracked sternums, cuts, bruises – all manner of physical trauma sustained in pursuit of a goal that, when said out loud, seems hardly worth the cost.

But it was, and is again for a man determined to defy the accepted odds. McCarron, who retired in 2002, was asked if Stevens is forgetting to remember just how demanding it is to be a dedicated Thoroughbred jockey.

“I think it’s what he’s remembering more than anything – the excitement, the adrenalin rush, the thrill of that competition,” McCarron replied. “I bet he can’t wait to go out and show those young whippersnappers how an old fart can still get it done. He’s got a lot of courage, but it’s also an incredibly strong draw.”

After retirement, McCarron tried a turn in the front office at Santa Anita and behind the microphone as a racing analyst for TVG.

“I saw some horrendous rides,” McCarron said. “There were many times sitting alongside Todd Schrupp and those guys I thought, ‘Dammit, I wish I was out there.’ I would think that has gone through Gary’s mind more than once.”

And was McCarron ever tempted to un-retire?

“Oh yes,” he said. “More than once I thought that I might have pulled the trigger too soon. But I’ve been very fortunate to have found something I love to do, and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”

Gary Stevens has tried to do other things instead of being a jockey. Really, he has.

During an earlier break from riding he tried to be a jockey agent – Corey Nakatani was his client – but Stevens was still too much of a real jockey at heart to accommodate the emotional conflict of watching other people do the job you’re supposed to be doing. If his knees weren’t hurting so much at the time, Stevens would not have bothered, because he certainly did not need the vicarious buzz.

He tried being a trainer, a couple of times, and given his gift for equine communication and patience in the saddle, the training profession should have been a good fit. But patience, to a jockey, means waiting 10 seconds longer than the other guy to make a move, not 10 days for an infection to clear, or three months for a shin to heal, or, for that matter, paperwork, workers’ comp, vet bills, farrier bills, and waking up every morning wondering which stall will contain the insurmountable problem.

He tried being a broadcaster, and still will be at least for now, for HRTV and NBC, home of the Triple Crown. This will be an interesting juggling act if he can pull it off and will depend largely upon how much business he wants to take on as a jockey. There is also a potential for conflict of interest, since Stevens presumably will be riding for many of the people he’d be talking about on air. Still, he can be an entertaining presence, especially when he says what he thinks, and he is at his best as a TV analyst when there is a major race on the line, offering the insights available only to someone who’s been there and done that, a lot.

Most visibly, Stevens tried being an actor, and since everyone’s a critic you either liked him in “Seabiscuit” or “Wildfire” or “Luck,” or not. As one of the writers for “Luck,” I can attest to the fact that there was no hedging when it came to presenting the actor Gary Stevens a challenge. In fact, we had some things in mind for his character for Season 2 that would have made “Breaking Bad” look like “Glee.” Ancient history. Stevens insists that acting is the toughest thing he’s ever done, and the fact that he’s done it more than once and received his share of critical praise simply means he can do it again.

There is, however, a type-casting prejudice against actors of a certain height in show business, just as there is a prejudice against athletes of a certain age in professional sports. In the past few years, such accomplished, fortysomething jockeys as Alex Solis, Edgar Prado, David Flores, Victor Espinoza and Aaron Gryder have seen their business dwindle in the face of owners and trainers who opt for that newer, hot jockey smell.

The average age of the top 20 jockeys in North America in 2012, in terms of purses won by their horses, was 32.2, and the median age was 29.5, ranging from 20-year-old Irad Ortiz to 47-year-old Mike Smith.

Gary Stevens will turn 50 on March 6, having ridden his first Thoroughbred in an official race in 1979. The numbers are unforgiving, but the real story still needs to be told. Stevens is fit, trim and motivated by those mystical notes only the finest professional athletes seem to hear.

Gatsby was trying to get the girl who got away. Stevens has a much easier task – he just needs to find a few fast horses. And if the kids in the room want to give him a hard time, he has my permission to quote Ronald Reagan from his 1984 presidential campaign against Walter Mondale, 17 years his junior.

“I won’t hold my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him.”