01/10/2013 12:21PM

Q&A: Jockey Gary Stevens talks about his comeback

Shigeki Kikkawa
Jockey Gary Stevens ended his seven-year retirement Sunday at Santa Anita.

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens retired in 2005 after winning 4,888 races, three Kentucky Derbies, eight Breeders’ Cup races, and an Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding jockey in 1998. On Jan. 3, he announced a comeback to race riding and rode his first race Sunday, finishing third on the $50,000 claimer Jebrica.

To prepare for the comeback, Stevens moved to Washington, where he underwent a physical fitness program and resumed working horses at the Pegasus training center. He returned to Southern California before Christmas and continued to work horses at Santa Anita.

Last Sunday morning, he discussed his comeback and his goals for the latest stage of his career.

Age: 49

Residence: Sierra Madre, Calif.

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

Was there one moment when you decided, “I’ll make a comeback?” When I was in Seattle at Pegasus, I was working out with [personal trainer] Clark Masterson. I felt myself getting fit and getting to that point when there was no longer any pain. I’d gotten through the initial soreness. Right after I started getting on horses, I was lying in my bed at night, and I said, “I can do this. If I can get through the workouts, I can ride horses.”

When you announced your comeback, you described the last eight weeks as a “life-altering experience.” What have you learned about yourself? To take care of myself and quit worrying so much about people around me and start worrying more about myself. That may sound a little conceited. I’m thinking about my life. I’m 50 years old, and I want to enjoy living.

You talked about giving up alcohol, too. That’s been a big change. I think a lot of people will be surprised at the change. They may not like a completely sober Gary Stevens. I’m an intense person, and I’ll wear my heart on my sleeve. Maybe even more.

When you told your wife, Angie, of your plans for a comeback, what was her reaction? She’s been very supportive of it, and I was supportive to the commitment that I made to go through the seven weeks I spent [in Washington]. She and my daughter, Maddie, came up there and saw me a couple of times. I had two good friends there – Mike Puhich and Jason Orman. Between the diet and the physical workouts, it was not an easy task. There were times when I said, “I’m headed home.”

How will the comeback affect your commitments as a commentator for HRTV and NBC? NBC Sports has picked up more shows. I’ve got a remote to do for the Holy Bull [at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 26]. I was talking with [NBC producer] Rob Hyland, and I fully expect to be behind the desk at the Triple Crown. There may be a conflict for the Florida Derby or the Louisiana Derby, and I’d love to pick up something for Dubai World Cup night. He said, “Let me know.” I’m in the fourth year of a five-year contract with NBC, and I don’t want to damage that relationship. As far as HRTV goes, they have been very supportive, and they are looking out for me.

So how active can racing fans expect you to be? I’ll let that play out. I’ll see what comes to me, if I can get a horse for [Bob] Baffert, [Richard] Mandella, or my old buddy [Patrick] Biancone.

Do you set any goals? I don’t set any goals. I didn’t set goals when I was riding before. The lows are too low if things do not go as you expect. If I don’t feel like I’m an asset and I’m a detriment, I’ll step away again.

What does a 49-year-old jockey bring to a mount that a 24-year-old cannot? I’ll be relying on my experience to make decisions in a race. My mental approach will be an asset. I like watching Peyton Manning. I’m not comparing myself to Peyton Manning, but it’s interesting to see him undress a defense before he steps to a line. Physical-wise, he’s not the same quarterback that he was before. If I was a quarterback, I’d used to be able to run a 4.4 40. Now, I’d be a 5.1 40.

What are you plans for the spring? I expect to be at Keeneland on opening day. I still have a house there in Louisville. We’ll see what develops here. A lot depends on the next month and a half.

Where do you think you’ll be in six months? I’d like to see this year and next year out. You never know about injuries, and all the unknowns. There will be a setback. I’m hoping that we’re looking at a good five years. I’d have to say that’s my goal. I’d be happy with that.

Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted the names of Gary Stevens's children from a previous marriage. They are sons Riley and T.C. and daughters Ashley and Carlie.