04/21/2010 11:00PM

Q&A: Gary Stevens

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Barbara D. Livingston

A three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby as a jockey during his Hall of Fame career, he is acting in the HBO television pilot "Luck," a horse racing drama, and will be the lead analyst on NBC's coverage of the 136th Derby on May 1.

Birthdate: March 6, 1963, in Caldwell, Idaho

Family: wife, Angie; sons T.C., Riley; daughters Ashley, Carlie, and Maddie.

Got into racing because. . . "I was raised into it. I had no choice. My dad trains, and my mom was a rodeo queen. It was in my blood."

Did you always want to be a jockey? "No, I actually was afraid of horses after a riding accident when I was 6 years old. I was afraid of horses until I got on my first racehorse. The only reason I got over my fear is I saw the money my brother Scott was making and what a good time he was having as a jockey. He was my idol. Scott is

two and a half years older than I am. When I felt the power of a racehorse and knew I could keep them between the rails - they couldn't go anywhere - I was all right with that. I got over my fear."

What do you remember about your first Kentucky Derby win, with Winning Colors in 1988? "Everything. Mostly, I remember the last eighth of a mile, knowing I was going to win but thinking, 'When is the finish line going to come up?' It was the longest 13 seconds of my life, but it was the best 13 seconds. It was a near-death experience. My whole life flashed before me. I thought of the grandfather who passed away when I was 7, wondering if he was looking down on me. I was thinking of my mom and my dad; my oldest brother, Craig; and my brother Scott telling me, 'You better be sure to hold her together.' Scott was the first one to work Winning Colors. He told me about her before she ever made it to the races."

What about with Thunder Gulch in 1995? "That was a big surprise. I had won the Santa Anita Derby with Larry the Legend. I was riding in Hong Kong at the time. I flew back to Hong Kong the night of the Santa Anita Derby. Ron Anderson was my agent. He was waiting for me at the airport in Hong Kong, and he had this look like someone had kicked his best friend. I said, 'What's wrong? We just won the Santa Anita Derby.' He told me Larry the Legend had come out of the race with an injury. I went from riding one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby to not being in the race. Wayne Lukas had called Ron during my flight and said he needed a rider for Thunder Gulch. I had won the Remsen on him, but I thought the horse was kind of a playboy. I didn't want to go. I didn't think he had a chance. But then my old buddy Mike Smith called and said, 'Gary, I'm committed to Talkin Man. I have no idea why Thunder Gulch ran like he did in the Blue Grass; I didn't ride him. All I can tell you is that if he runs like he did in the Florida Derby or Fountain of Youth, he can win.' So I took the mount. Thunder Gulch didn't usually like to win by very far. When we came into the stretch, I was laying fourth. Serena's Song was in front. I figured we'd be in the battle of a lifetime. I pulled the whip into my left hand. I reached and hit him as hard as I've hit a horse, and boom - he took off. As it turned out, that was my easiest Derby victory. He became a man that day."

And Silver Charm in 1997? "That was the battle of a lifetime, with my favorite horse of all time. Somehow, someway, he found a way to win. I was of no help. That's probably the ugliest I ever looked on a horse finishing a race."

Best horse you've ridden? "I cannot separate Point Given and Rock Hard Ten. They are identical in their temperament, the way they're built, and their athleticism. They're just different in color."

Best horse you've seen? "Barbaro. I may change that. I haven't seen Eskendereya in person yet. That's who Eskendereya reminds me of - Barbaro."

You retired once from riding, came back, then retired again. On big days like Derby Day, do you miss being in the saddle? "Let's put it this way - my mind misses it, but my body doesn't."

How challenging was it for you to make the transition to television analyst on NBC and, now, HRTV? "It's a challenge riding in top races in the country. Live TV is like riding a horse race. I'm paid to do a job, and I better be right on, and if I'm not, it's easy to spot. One of the things I hate doing is being critical of rides of my peers. I have a hard time with that, but I have to do it."

You had a major part in the film "Seabiscuit," and now you've got a part in the pilot for "Luck," the HBO series set at the racetrack. Do you enjoy acting? "I really do. It reminds me a lot of riding races, in that I better be on my game when it's time for my shoot. I'm fortunate to work for some of the greatest people, first on 'Seabiscuit' and now on 'Luck,' with people like [director] Michael Mann and [creator] David Milch. I know that time is money. They're perfectionists. I take pride in taking as few takes as possible."

Riding and acting certainly are two professions that leave one open for criticism. Do you think you have a little daredevil in you? "It's an adrenaline rush for me. There's nothing like looking at a trainer smiling at you when you're in the winner's circle. When I do a take perfectly, the director has to say nothing. That smile on his face is the pat on the back. It's identical. I knew when I rode a good race and know when I do a good scene, without being told. That smile says it all."

You trained for a little while and then gave it up. Do you think you would want to do that again some day? "I'll put it this way - I put my tack in storage, I didn't sell it. I loved it."

It's not like you have a lot of free time, but what hobbies do you have? "Playing golf and playing the drums. Next to my Hall of Fame plaque in my house is a certificate from the National Association of Instrumental Drummers. I was the youngest person inducted in 1975, when I was 11 1/2 years old. Jazz music is pretty much what my drum teacher brought me up with. But I love all music - country, rock and roll, jazz, blues, everything. I still have the drum set my parents got me in 1973. It's made of cherrywood. I've got a movie theater in the basement of my house. I'll put on DVD's of concerts, full screen, and play with those guys."

Who's your favorite drummer? "Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. I loved Genesis."

I won't hold you to this since the Derby is a long ways away, but as of now who's your Derby horse? "Eskendereya."