Photo: Don August
Sports Illustrated writer, Mark Beech makes his case for Gary Stevens as Sportsman of the Year ...
Back in 2001, when he was 38, Gary Stevens was asked if he could envision himself riding thoroughbreds for as long as Laffit Pincay, who was then one of the country's leading jockeys at the advanced age of 54. "Doing this at 54?" Stevens responded. "I doubt I'll be doing this at 45."
Stevens had a point. Few jobs in sports are more arduous, or more perilous, than a jockey's. Most riders, including Stevens, follow what many would consider starvation diets to keep their weight below 116 pounds. The normal course of their duties has them storming along in traffic at 35 mph with unpredictable, 1,000-pound thoroughbreds between their knees -- with an ambulance trailing not far behind. To ride any longer than you absolutely had to, you'd have to really love it.
And so it is with Stevens -- my nomination for Sportsman of the Year -- who came out of a seven-year retirement last January to author one of the greatest seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Among the 50-year-old rider's 66 victories so far in 2013 are 17 in graded stakes races, including the Preakness, aboard Oxbow, the Breeders' Cup Distaff, on Beholder, and the Breeders' Cup Classic, atop Mucho Macho Man. Stevens' $11,395,908 in winnings is good for 12th on this year's money list even though his 369 starts are the fewest of any rider in the top 46. But Stevens, renowned by trainers for his intelligence and patience in the saddle, didn't come back for the money. "I don't think it's different than any other athlete," he said in June before riding Oxbow to a second-place finish in the Belmont. "You don't realize how good things are, how sweet you got it, and then it's gone."