01/06/2013 6:44PM

Santa Anita: Stevens launches comeback with near-miss

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The comeback of Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens in Sunday’s sixth race at Santa Anita nearly resulted in the first win in more than seven years for the famous rider.

Stevens finished third aboard Jebrica after leading in the stretch of the one-mile turf race for $50,000 claimers. Jebrica could not hold the lead and finished a neck and a nose behind Maybe Tuesday ($13).

The mount was the first of Stevens’s comeback, which he announced last Thursday.

“It was a perfect trip,” he said. “I thought there would be a storybook comeback, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Stevens, 49, began exercising horses at a training center in Washington state in November and continued when he returned to Southern California in December. While in Washington, Stevens said he began working with a personal trainer, and made major changes to his diet to regain fitness.

Stevens worked Jebrica in recent weeks for trainer Jim Penney, and picked up the mount on Thursday when entries were drawn for Sunday. A stakes winner at Hastings in 2011, Jebrica was the 5-1 fourth choice in a field of seven on Sunday.

Stevens had Jebrica well-placed throughout, stalking pacesetter Rock This Way, who was ridden by Tyler Baze. On the turn, Stevens moved Jebrica closer to the leader, and reached the front in the final furlong.

 “He put me where I wanted to be,” Stevens said. “When I went by Tyler, I got by them a little quicker than I wanted.

“He had a big run. It set up like a dream race. I could hear them coming and I couldn’t hold them off.”

Race winner Maybe Tuesday went by Stevens in the final sixteenth. Near the wire, Deacon Speakin outfinished Jebrica by a nose for second.

Stevens retired in November 2005 after winning 4,888 races, including three Kentucky Derbies and eight Breeders’ Cup races. He rode a race for retired jockeys at Santa Anita in October 2008, finishing third behind horses ridden by Sandy Hawley and Jerry Bailey.

“You can prepare all you want, but there is nothing like a race itself,” Stevens said of Sunday’s race. “It feels good to get the cobwebs out.”

“I wouldn’t mind getting out and getting on another.”

Stevens has said repeatedly in recent days that he does not plan to ride extensively, but hopes to pick up mounts in better quality races.

Stevens has no mounts on Thursday’s eight-race program.

Friday, he has one mount, riding the 3-year-old maiden filly Readyforhercloseup in the third race, over about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course. Readyforhercloseup is trained by Richard Mandella for Gerald Ford’s Diamond A Racing.

While he returns to riding, Stevens plans to continue his television work with HRTV and NBC. After Sunday’s race, he quickly changed clothes and worked as a commentator on HRTV for the later races of the Santa Anita program.

He was reminded of that after Jebrica’s race. Amy Zimmerman, Santa Anita’s director of broadcasting, was standing near Stevens after his interview.

 “Let’s go to work,” she said.