08/18/2010 12:41PM

Stevens vows to quit riding after latest injury

Barbara D. Livingston
Gary Stevens (right) leans against a pony after he was hurt working a horse for trainer Todd Pletcher (left).

In this week’s installment of “The Fallen,” retired Hall of Famer and all-around guy who should know better Gary Stevens finds himself grinding through a veritable rainbow of pain after sustaining a fracture of his left clavicle, not to mention his pride, in a sad piece of business last Sunday morning at Saratoga.

In the meantime, on the other side of the continent, peppy Joe Talamo was enjoying his favorite burger (an In-N-Out double-double with cheese and extra grilled onions, if you must know) and getting ready to be fitted with a removable brace on his left arm as his fractured wrist continues to heal, as advertised.

There is no sense in comparing the two situations, other than to acknowledge that in both instances there was an equine fatality, while the humans walked away. Talamo broke his wrist landing hand first on the Del Mar turf course on the afternoon of Aug. 5 after his mount, the 3-year-old gelding Rockstar Ben, appeared to be bumped off stride before fracturing a leg.

Stevens, 47, was getting tuned up for an all-star old-timers type of race at Arlington Park and to that end was working a horse in company for Todd Pletcher. For some reason this particular horse, the 2-year-old Thatcatismine, collapsed and died at the end of the workout, taking Stevens to the mat.

“It all kind of happened in slow motion,” Stevens said Tuesday, from his lake house rental in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “The horse just dropped. I went off on the left side and landed on my feet, then went to my knees, and turned my head kind of to the right and hit the ground just on the tip of my left shoulder. It was like somebody hit the collarbone with a ball-peen hammer. ‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘I broke this sonofabitch.’

“But I didn’t have the wind knocked out of me or anything,” Stevens added. “I got straight up, and I got on the horse’s head, because he was still kind of thrashing around. Then it took about six guys, including Todd, to pull him onto the ambulance because the winch was broke. It was about then the adrenaline started wearing off. I started sweating, and thinking, ‘I’m going down.’ ”

During a 26-year career of more than 4,000 winners, three Kentucky Derby triumphs, and considerable physical damage, Stevens sustained only one other fractured collarbone. The same collarbone, in fact, in the same place.

“It was in 1980, at Boise, on the last day of the meet,” Stevens recalled. “Ten days later I was riding at Longacres with one of those figure-8 braces on me, and nobody even knew I had a broken collarbone. I can tell you one thing – you couldn’t pay me enough money to try and put one of those things on now, or even attempt to get on a racehorse. It’s going to be another two days before I even feel like getting on an airplane.”

Stevens was 18 when he first cracked his clavicle. Talamo is 20. There will be a brief pause while the congregation once again meditates on the everlasting resilience of youth. To hear it from Joe, his wrist is but a hiccup in the big picture of his riding career, and there are nothing but tomorrows and tomorrows for which to be grateful.

“I know for a fact it could have been a whole lot worse,” Talamo said. “It hurt a lot the first couple of days, but now the pain level’s not that bad. Bending my fingers doesn’t hurt near as much as it did, so now maybe those bones are starting to collide.”

Had he been able to avoid the injury, Talamo would have been all over the Del Mar news. His upcoming mounts included JP’s Gusto, who won the Best Pal Stakes on Aug. 8, and Sidney’s Candy, who freaked in his turf debut on Aug. 14 in the La Jolla Stakes. Talamo also was set to ride Lilly Fa Pootz, who came within a nose of beating favored Wasted Tears in the Aug. 15 John C. Mabee, and he was looking forward to reuniting with his Breeders’ Cup winner, California Flag, in Wednesday’s running of the Green Flash.

“What goes around comes around,” Talamo said. “I knows guys in the past have got hurt that I’ve picked up business from.”

For a kid like this, a bonafide superstar on the rise, a broken wrist is about as serious as a flare-up of acne. Whether or not Sidney’s Candy, J.P.’s Gusto, and California Flag will be waiting for him when he returns for the Oak Tree meet remains to be seen. The point is getting back, and taking it from there.

On this issue, Stevens wrote the book, or at least contributed an extensive chapter. Throughout his career, he was notorious for never letting a little pain get in the way. It took at least four knee surgeries – not to mention a near-death experience in the 2003 Arlington Million – for him to finally hang up his tack and retire in 2005.

Stevens did ride an old-timers race with fellow Hall of Famers at Santa Anita in the fall of 2008 and felt great doing it, then a knee blew up that night and he swore, “Never again.” Never, being a relative term, was put on hold for a good cause in the race scheduled for Friday at Arlington. Stevens plans to be on the scene in Chicago to take his familiar spot as part of the HRTV coverage of the events surrounding the Arlington Million, which, to be brutally honest, does not require two functioning collarbones.

But this latest assault on his well being has given Stevens pause. Granted, it’s never necessarily a good idea to make important decisions under painful duress, even though such moments also can offer great clarity. Stevens – and we will take his word – has had one of those moments.

“That’s it for me,” he promised. “No mas. It’s been a long time since I hurt like this, and it reminds me why I don’t do it for a living anymore. I’ve been working horses on and off since the spring. It’s how I like to get fit, and for entertainment purposes, too. But all that’s going to discontinue.

“So I’m burning all my jockey stuff,” Stevens said. “The helmets, the flack jackets, everything – then put the ashes in urns, and maybe sell them on eBay.”

And you know, he meant it. He really did.