His career spanned four (4) decades. 4,888 Winners Circle appearances that include 3
in the Kentucky Derby, 2 Preakness Stakes, 3 Belmont Stakes and 8 in the Breeders’ Cup.
Since 2005, he has mounted only one thoroughbred for a competitive
race. Yet, just 2 months shy of his 50th birthday, Gary L. Stevens still has the burning
desire to compete in the Sport of Kings as a jockey.
On January 6th at Santa Anita Park, he'll get a leg up on Jebrica in the 6th race, marking the beginning of his comeback. Based on thousands of horse racing fans, trainers,
owners and jockeys, the overwhelming sentiment is a positive one. The most
common being “Best of Luck”, something the Idaho native seldom needed
throughout his racing career.
When in his prime, he was my favorite jockey. Not because we share the
same first name. In my mind, he was the most skilled jockey in the business (apologies
to Jerry D. Bailey) on any surface, at any distance. Having him in the irons
was an automatic upgrade for any runner.
Unfortunately it’s 2013, not 1997. Instead of wishing Gary Stevens
“Best of Luck”, I have no problem saying, “Big Mistake”. That’s my gut feeling
on his return to the track. It has nothing to do with the physical uncertainty
of his knees, rather everything to do with results seem by those in other sports who have travelled
the same road. Michael Jordan (NBA). Joe Frazier (boxing). Brett Favre (NFL).
Dominik Hasek (NHL).
None achieved success anywhere close to their pre-retirement
years. The majority went as far as to tarnish their legacy. Is racings Hall of
Famer trying to be the first? Can we believe that at age 50 he’ll be content “…
with the hope of helping develop good racehorses”? Couldn't he have done that while he tried his hand at training?
Upon hearing the news of his comeback, my immediate thought was,
WHY?! He seemed to be enjoying the retired life, remaining in the horse racing
spotlight as an analyst for TVG, HRTV and NBC Sports. He got the acting-bug
when cast as George Woolf in the 2003 film “Seabiscuit”. Most recently he was a regular cast member on the short-lived HBO TV series “Luck”. He’s
even an accomplished drummer who could sit in for Max Weinberg on Conan O’Brien’s
show, when Max goes on tour with Bruce Springsteen.
So I ask WHY? A horse racing jockey’s job is the most demanding of
any professional sports athlete in the world. Pound for pound they need to be
the strongest, in mind and body. I have no doubt that Stevens’ mind is as
strong as ever, but Father Time is undefeated. The physical demands of being a successful
jockey at age 50 and reliving his Glory Days is a longshot.