05/09/2013 11:41AM

Preakness Stakes: Stevens's long history with the second jewel

Barbara D. Livingston
Gary Stevens, 50, is expected to get his record-tying 17th mount in the Preakness Stakes on May 18, when he rides Oxbow.

Gary Stevens came of age as a professional jockey about as far away from Baltimore as you can get and still be standing somewhere on dry land in the Lower Forty-Eight. Even so, as a young rider in such Northwestern outposts as Seattle, Yakima, and Coeur d’Alene he indulged himself more than once in the fantasy of being on a contender in the Preakness Stakes.

As it turned out, on his way to winning three Kentucky Derbies, an Eclipse Award and a place in the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, Stevens ended up riding in the Preakness 16 times before his retirement in 2006, more than Bill Shoemaker, more than Angel Cordero, more than Jerry Bailey, more than even Eddie Arcaro, whose six victories in the Triple Crown’s middle jewel stand at the top of the heap.

Only Pat Day, who retired in 2005 with five Preakness wins from 17 mounts, has ridden the race more often than Stevens. That distinction may last only as long as the afternoon of May 18, when the unretired Stevens − 50, fit, and eager to please − plans to be aboard Oxbow at Pimlico in the 138th running of the 1 3/16-mile classic.

Stevens was at his Louisville home earlier this week, still stoked by the sixth-place finish of Oxbow in the Kentucky Derby the previous Saturday. For a brief few strides as the field turned into the stretch Stevens found himself on the lead, a surreal moment for an athlete who had not been in a Kentucky Derby for eight years.

“That’s probably the happiest I’ve ever been in defeat,” Stevens said. “To be 50 years old and make the lead coming into the stretch and actually think I’m going to win it – I did get teased a little bit by the guys for my youthful enthusiasm.”

Stevens is always the right guy to ask for an historical narrative, mostly because he’s already taken part in so many great moments. On top of that, his broadcasting work over the past seven years has rendered him increasingly comfortable with the sound of his own voice. That is why a Gary Stevens journey through the last three decades of the Preakness figured to be a good way to set the stage for this year’s running. The conversation went like this:

You thought you’d be riding your first Preakness in 1985, at age 22, aboard Tank’s Prospect for owner Eugene Klein and trainer Wayne Lukas. He was your Arkansas Derby winner and first-ever Kentucky Derby ride. But then you got caught in a switch when Lukas initially said he’d probably pass the Preakness. You gave a call in a stakes race at Hollywood Park to an important client, owner Leonard Lavin, on Preakness day. Lukas changed his mind and decided to go for the Preakness, but you were stuck, and when Tank’s Prospect won, that was Pat Day in the saddle instead of Gary Stevens.

“To this day people still ask me why Wayne took me off Tank’s Prospect for the Preakness,” Stevens said. “If I hadn’t outsmarted myself I should have three wins in the Preakness and already been tied with Pat for the most mounts.”

You finally got your first Preakness ride in 1987 on the longshot Lookinforthebigone, Lukas the trainer. Around the far turn you had the outright lead for about a dozen strides before Craig Perret was on top of you with Bet Twice, and then Chris McCarron came along with Alysheba. Once it was clear you would not get a piece of the purse it appeared as if you took care of your horse and brought him home seventh. Are there any recollections about that initial exposure to the race?

“What I learned riding in any of the classics – and especially in big fields like the Derby and many times the Preakness − is that you’ve got to have your horse in a place where he’s comfortable, according to his running style. You don’t want to do anything drastic to take your horse out of his comfort zone.

“The most important thing you want to do is put your horse in a position in the final stages of the race where he’s at least got a chance. You don’t know what’s going on behind you. I didn’t know that day what kind of trip Alysheba was getting behind me, and I didn’t know the other day whether Orb was getting in trouble or not. When you’re in a spot like I was in that first Preakness, or with a horse like Oxbow giving me a good trip, you almost hope everybody behind you is having a horrendous trip.”

The 1988 Preakness, well, you could write an opera about that race and no one would complain. Two weeks earlier you won your first Derby when Winning Colors went wire to wire to hold off Forty Niner. She was the first filly to win the Derby since Genuine Risk in 1980 and only the third in history. Woody Stephens, Forty Niner’s trainer, was determined not to let you and your filly have your own way on the lead again in the Preakness, and Pat Day rode accordingly. With you on his outside, Day and Forty Niner packed your filly wide around the first turn and onto the backstretch. Keeping apace, Day and Forty Niner continued to race far out from the rail, abandoning any pretense of a reasonable ground-saving trip. The two horses even bumped and brushed a few times. You finished third to Risen Star, Forty Niner was nowhere, and in the aftermath you had some harsh words for Stephens. Can you still get stirred up just being reminded of that race?

“I have my regrets about how I reacted,” Stevens said. “That was me then, although it still is kind of me now. To be honest with you, even if what happened had not happened in the Preakness there wasn’t anyone going to beat Risen Star that day anyway. I look back on it and think how fortunate I was to win the Derby when I watch film of the trip Risen Star had at Churchill. We could have very easily had a Triple Crown winner that year.”

There were those in the media even madder than you. Racing writer Andrew Beyer criticized Stephens, who died in 1998, for a scorched earth policy targeting Winning Colors at the expense of his own runner. “The only aim of the tactics was to bring about the filly’s defeat,” Beyer wrote, while Daily Racing Form, in an unsigned, front-page editorial, excoriated Forty Niner’s trainer for his “unsporting conduct” and “contemptuous action.” Did you ever forgive and forget?

“In 1997 at the Belmont, the year I was going for the Triple Crown with Silver Charm, the network wanted to do a piece with me and Woody, because he was the king of the Belmont, with those five straight he had in the 1980’s. I’d be asking him how to go about winning. But I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do it.

“Chris McCarron visited Woody at his barn. He wasn’t doing well, with an oxygen tank, and Chris told me later Woody asked, ‘What about this kid Stevens, the potato farmer?’ Chris laughed and told Woody he would actually love ‘that kid,’ and that we would have gotten along famously.”

You were 34 at the time. Some kid.

“Right, but that was Woody. So we met in the paddock by ourselves after training one morning. We laughed and chatted. And that fall in New York I actually ended up riding everything for Woody and wound up winning a race for him. When we finally met that time and figured out just how much we had in common, I guess that’s when my blood quit boiling.”

Seven years went by after the Winning Colors affair and still no Preakness trophy. You rode horses like Mister Frisky, Best Pal, Casual Lies, and Personal Hope in the Preakness to no avail. Any regrets about the Pimlico luck you had with any of those?

“Those were all nice horses, and most of them ran well,” Stevens said. “But none of them were at their best that day. And you can’t have an off-day and win a Triple Crown race.”

Then came Thunder Gulch, winner of the 1995 Kentucky Derby, again for Wayne Lukas. In the Preakness you were beaten less than a length by the other Lukas colt, Timber Country, while being split by local longshot Oliver’s Twist. Thunder Gulch went on to win the Belmont Stakes, so the question lingers: Was a Triple Crown chance squandered?

“Thunder Gulch became a man the day he won the Kentucky Derby,” Stevens said. “He fired so big, took such a huge step forward, that I wish, looking back, I’d taken it easier on him at Churchill.

“In the Preakness, I had about 85 percent of the horse I had in the Derby. And still he gets beat by just three-quarters of a length. If he’d have had three weeks between the Derby and the Preakness instead of two there’s no doubt in my mind I would have won the Triple Crown with Thunder Gulch. But that’s what makes the Triple Crown so difficult.”

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Pat Day won with his second Preakness mount. So did Jerry Bailey. Mike Smith only needed three to break through. You arrived at the dawn of the 1997 Triple Crown season 0 for 8 in the Preakness. It probably came as no surprise that when you finally won the race that year with Derby winner Silver Charm it was after one of the most hard-fought classics in modern history. You edged Free House and Captain Bodgit in a three-horse photo, with the troubled Touch Gold right behind. Were you putting everything you’d learned about the race into that ride?

“The things that go through your mind in a horse race are crazy,” Stevens replied. “I’m at the eighth pole. I’m thinking how I’m snake-bitten in this race. ‘Come on, boy,’ I say to myself, to Silver Charm, ‘pull me out of this.’ After losing eight times you wonder if you’re overthinking the race. You can always make excuses. I know there were plenty of times I didn’t ride the best horse, but I thought I’d always ridden pretty good races. So you start to think it isn’t meant to be.

“Silver Charm had already showed me in the Kentucky Derby what he was capable of, and he pulled me through. It felt awful good to get that monkey off my back.”

PHOTO: Silver Charm (middle), Gary Stevens up, outduels Free House (right) and Captain Bodgit in the 1997 Preakness to give Stevens his first victory in the race. [Mike Marten]

Still, they say you learn as much and sometimes even more from losing a race on a particular horse than winning one. For the 1998 Preakness you replaced your good friend Alex Solis on Kentucky Derby runner-up Victory Gallop, who was trained by Elliott Walden. You got to Real Quiet’s flank in the stretch but then the Derby winner drew off to win by a fairly easy margin. What did you take out of that race that helped you beat Real Quiet with Victory Gallop when the Triple Crown was on the line in the Belmont Stakes?

“Elliott was adamant that Alex had Victory Gallop too far back in the Derby. He wanted me to lay closer to Real Quiet in the Preakness, which I did. But then I didn’t have a lot of finishing power. I saw Real Quiet hit the lead and start wandering around, but I didn’t have enough horse to finish the job. I’ll never forget when I came back. I looked at Elliott and said, ‘This colt doesn’t want to be that close. We can beat the winner in the Belmont if you’ll let me drop back early. That’s how he wants to run.’ Elliott just smiled at me and said, ‘Great.’ Turns out Alex rode him the right way in the Derby after all.”

Point Given is on a pretty exclusive list of otherwise great horses who failed to win the Derby. For company he’s got Damascus, Native Dancer, Easy Goer, Gallant Man, Nashua, Arts and Letters, Alydar, Best Pal – they’re all in the Hall of Fame. When you crossed the line in the 2001 Preakness with Point Given, gearing him down after winning by daylight, I wonder if your thoughts didn’t immediately turn to what might have been.

“They did, yes, but by the same token I would have liked to have had Pimlico’s surface at Churchill Downs for the Derby instead of the front-running speed track they had that year. I would have been able to ride him a lot different, like he wanted to run, and not asking him to be closer than he wanted to be.

“The Preakness was a different deal altogether – smaller field, us being on the outside where I could take a look at everybody. Going to the gate, I had a lot of confidence. I knew how good he was.

“I just kept saying that old expression to myself: ‘Just don’t fall off, Stevens.’ He made a move from the three-eighths pole and started going by horses while he was still in a high gallop. To that point all I’d given him was a little bit of a chirp. His ears were just fluttering back and forth, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, look at this.’ ”

The last time you rode the Preakness with a contender was in 2004 with Rock Hard Ten. And heck, you beat every horse you could see, didn’t you? 

“At the quarter pole that day I was so loaded with ammo. When he swapped into his right lead I chirped to him, and he went to running. You know, when you have that feeling, it’s your race. About two strides later Smarty Jones opened up four lengths on us. I just went, ‘Ruh-roh.’”

And Smarty Jones won by 11 1/2 lengths.

“When we pulled up after that race my horse was deflated. It was almost like a boxer who was undefeated then went out and got his butt kicked for twelve straight rounds. It was one of the best performances I’ve ever been given by a horse who ran second.”

Now you’re heading into the Preakness with a colt who just finished sixth to Orb and Joel Rosario in the Derby. You were beaten about 10 lengths, and Orb still has that guy Shug McGaughey in his corner. You’ve been to Pimlico three times with Derby winners in the past, which puts you in a position to imagine what Rosario will be thinking, what he should be thinking, and how you will try to spoil his afternoon.

“Hopefully, he doesn’t think too much,” Stevens said. “What Joel’s doing right now is very reminiscent of what I went through in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Everything he does is right. He’s not overthinking anything. He’s definitely not letting anything into his head in terms of distractions.“What it would take for me to beat him is Orb being a horse who’s knocked out a little from his Derby, and maybe gets a bad post position draw. The thing is, I’ve never seen Shug so confident. He’s not barking, but he’s got that confident little smirk, because I think he knows his horse won with something left. With Joel pushing all the right buttons right now I think we all might be in trouble.”

Stevens in the Preakness

2005 Noble Causeway 6th
2004 Rock Hard Ten 2nd
2003 Scrimshaw 3rd
2002 Table Limit 11th
2001 Point Given 1st
1999 Stephen Got Even 4th
1998 Victory Gallop 2nd
1997 Silver Charm 1st
1996 Editor's Note 3rd
1995 Thunder Gulch 3rd
1993 Personal Hope 4th
1992 Casual Lies 3rd
1991 Best Pal 5th
1990 Mister Frisky 3rd
1988 Winning Colors 3rd
1987 Lookinforthebigone 7th