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So far, Stevens proving critics wrong
ARCADIA, Calif. - They joked about him behind his back, those famous backstretch know-it-alls.
When Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens announced he was launching a small training stable last May, few doubted he would stick with it.
"People have wanted to see if Gary Stevens would show up every morning and put the time in and come to the barn," he said on a recent wet morning at Santa Anita. "I heard what they were saying: 'He'll never make it as a trainer. He'll have a meltdown.' There was an over-under. 'He won't make it three weeks. He won't make it four months. He won't make it to Christmas.'
"The end of May seems like yesterday."
Christmas is here, and so is Stevens, still showing up at the barn at Santa Anita every morning.
Stevens started with two horses and had 13 by the middle of December. He hopes to reach a stable size of 20 or more by the middle of 2010. He had his first winner in October at Santa Anita and, with support from IEAH Stables, has added multiple Grade 1 winner Diamondrella and will soon add 2008 champion 2-year-old filly Stardom Bound.
So far, his critics have been silenced. Stevens, who won the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding rider of 1998, shows up for work, even on rainy days, and hasn't walked away to start another venture. He is in this for the long haul, he said, and acknowledged the upcoming winter-spring meeting at Santa Anita, which starts Dec. 26, is the time to produce.
"It's time to step it up," he said. "I'm focusing on this meet right here, and I've got to have results."
When he quit riding in 2005, Stevens had amassed 4,888 wins in a career that began in Idaho in 1979. He had a trophy cabinet befitting such a career, including three wins in the Kentucky Derby, nine wins in the Santa Anita Derby, and eight Breeders' Cup races.
It was not his first retirement. He stopped in 1999 because of persistent knee injuries and was briefly an assistant trainer for Alex Hassinger when both were working for Ahmed Salman's Thoroughbred Corp.
Stevens returned to riding in 2000, took a break in 2002 to play a supporting role in "Seabisbuit," and quit riding for good in 2005. He has never strayed far from the sport.
Stevens worked as a commentator on NBC for the Triple Crown and on a day-to-day basis with TVG and later HRTV. He advised the Little Red Feather partnership on horse acquisitions and later IEAH Stable. He was never far from Santa Anta and occasionally worked horses for trainer friends.
"Thank God for TV and HRTV," he said. "The live TV gave me the same adrenaline rush as horse racing did because you'd better be prepared."
While Stevens couldn't stay away from racing on a day-to-day basis, he struggled to find a more active niche.
Last spring, when his father, Ron, a trainer, brought Turf Paradise stakes winner Lessons in Deceit to Santa Anita for a stakes, he prodded Gary to begin training.
"My dad said, 'Why don't you just do it?'" he said. "It all kind of happened at once. I've had a lot of support from everybody, from a lot of different people. I wonder what I would have done if wasn't doing this. It's a big high for me."
Along with his adult son, T.C., Gary began the day-to-day operations of the stable.
Friends helped with the launch. Jason Orman, a friend who formerly trained in California and now trains in Turkey, told Stevens to use his stable equipment that was kept in storage in Southern California. The little things needed for an active stable - tack, webbings, rakes, bandages, you name it - became available overnight.
"When I started, I didn't have any staff at all," he said. "It was my son and I, and we had three horses. It's given me a chance to get set up the way we want. With trainers down on horses, and the lack of horses that we have in California, there is no shortage of experienced grooms looking for work.
"I've learned you're only as good as your staff," he said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that."
T.C. Stevens has since moved to the Ocala, Fla., area and has remained in Thoroughbred racing. The early days of the stable were difficult on the father-son relationship, the elder Stevens said.
"He's very much like myself as far as my temper and stubbornness," Gary Stevens said. "It's hard enough for a father-son to work together in any business."
Stevens is now assisted by Reynaldo Abreu, who formerly worked for Nick Zito and Marylou Whitney. He joined the team this fall.
Perhaps by the summer, Stevens and Abreu will have their hands on a stable of 20 or more.
"That would be a good number," Stevens said. "Hopefully, I can achieve that. If we have a decent meet that will bring more to the table."
Stevens has four 2-year-olds who will start in coming days and weeks: Outlaw Leader, by Deputy Commander; Salk Lake MD, by Salt Lake; and fillies by Rock Hard Ten, whom Stevens rode, and Leroidesanimaux.
"I've taken my time with them," he said. "We've got lots of miles in them. They're not that far off. The Rock Hard Ten filly has got plenty of ability."
Stardom Bound will join Stevens's stable this month but will start in trainer Rick Dutrow's name for the El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 17. She will remain with Stevens and will be pointed for the La Canada Stakes on Feb. 14. Diamondrella will start in the $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap on Jan. 2.
Working with such important horses will give the stable instant attention in major races, but he says what he accomplishes with the everyday horses will be vital to growth. His first win, in March, came with Higher Incentive, a $32,000 claimer. Stevens was on the verge of tears in the winner's circle, standing alongside his wife, Angie, and infant daughter, Madison. The win was another step toward success.
"When I was riding, I said any day that I didn't learn something was a wasted day," he said. "There isn't a day that comes by that something unexpected doesn't happen. You come back in the afternoon, and something is different. You'll have a sleepless night, and you come back the next morning and it's fine."
He showed up the next morning, and the one after that. His critics did not account for that.