Stevens had to scratch his Kentucky Derby 'itch' - NBC Sports

Stevens had to scratch his Kentucky Derby 'itch'
Famed jockey and ex-TV analyst, 50, thrilled to be riding for first time since 2005 - but can't say how long it'll last
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May 4, 2013, 4:00 pm

"I mean when I'm going - when I'm really going - I feel like . like a jockey must feel. He's sitting on his horse, he's got all that speed and power underneath him. He's coming into the stretch, the pressure's on him . and he knows . just feels . when to let it go and how much. It's a great feeling, boy, it's a real great feeling when you're right . and you know you're right."

- Fast Eddie Felson, "The Hustler."

* * *

Gary Stevens doesn't know. He has a plan, of course. It's no secret. Saturday, when he mounts a longshot named Oxbow in the Kentucky Derby, his 19th Derby, Stevens plans on letting the horse run. The one thing - maybe the only thing - Stevens knows about Oxbow is that the horse wants to run. Stevens is on the inside now, and he plans on rushing Oxbow to the front, taking the lead, hugging the rail, pushing the pace, daring any brave jockey to go with him while 150,000 people scream and drink and the colors blur past.

From there? Well, from there Gary Stevens does not know how long it will last.

* * *

It wasn't exactly a bad kind of fear . in truth, he sort of liked it. The fear was a kind of pressure, and pressure sharpened his senses. Pressure spurred his ambition. Pressure gave him an edge. He did not want to make a single mistake. He did not want his instructor to say one negative thing. Gary Stevens had to be perfect.

* * *

"I wouldn't say coming back was important to me," Gary Stevens is saying now. He is standing along the backstretch of Churchill Downs, and it is early morning on the day before the Kentucky Derby. All is motion - horses trotting, water spraying, trainers and owners plotting, lurkers wearing crumpled hats watching it all. A pink sun peeks over the twin spires . it is a postcard.

Gary Stevens is 50 years old. He has been an NBC television announcer and an actor for the past seven years. Now, he's a jockey again. He weighs 113 pounds - down 25 from his broadcasting days. Stevens, in his previous life, won three Kentucky Derbies and five other Triple Crown races and eight Breeders Cup races and nine Santa Anita Derbies and about 5,000 other races. He says those mean nothing now. "Next race," he says.

The thing that made him great, people always said, was that he always seemed to know what was going to happen. It did not matter, the mayhem around him. It did not matter, the conditions, the track, the crowd, the horse's style, the jockeys' maneuvers. He was calm in the middle. He knew.

"I did not NEED to come back," he reiterates now. "It's more like, you know, it was there for the taking. From the time I got the itch last August, I wanted to see if I could be successful again. And if I could be successful, why not?"

* * *

At the three-eighths pole, Gary Stevens chirped. This was 1988. Stevens was riding Winning Colors, a filly, and everyone was waiting for him to make his move. Stevens was just 25 then, but already a star. He had dropped out of high school to ride, and he won his very first start at Les Bois Park near his home in Idaho. He won on Lil' Star - a thoroughbred trained by his father.

Stevens kept winning and winning - first in Idaho, then in California, then wherever he was called to the post. The great trainer D. Wayne Lukas felt sure that Stevens was the jockey who would win him the Kentucky Derby. Going into 1988, Lukas had entered 13 horses in the Kentucky Derby, and he had never won, never come especially close to winning, and it was tearing him apart. Before Winning Colors, he put Stevens on a thoroughbred called Tank's Prospect. They finished seventh. Before Winning Colors, he put Stevens on a horse called On The Line. They finished 10th.

But, yes, that was before Winning Colors. She was an extraordinary filly. She took off at Santa Anita and never stopped - she won by 7« lengths. Winning Colors just had so much speed. The only question was when to unleash it.

"Remember, the three-eighths pole," Lukas had said to Stevens just before the race. Stevens nodded. Lukas retreated to the racing secretary's office to watch in private on TV.

Slideshow

Derby celebs

Stars show up at Churchill Downs for 138th Run for the Roses.

And then . a fast-closer named Forty Niner came on, gaining, gaining, and the lead dwindled, down to two lengths, one, a half-length, a head. Stevens whipped Winning Colors and whipped again. "You can't get a horse to do more than he can," Stevens often says. But you wonder about that . because, somehow, he knew.

Winning Colors held on. And all the while, all down the stretch, Sports Illustrated's Bill Nack watched Lukas staring at the television and shouting, "Gary! Gary! Gary! Gary! Gary!"

* * *

"I was perfectly happy," Stevens says, and he's talking about his time when he was retired from racing, when he was announcing for NBC and when he was acting in the HBO series "Luck." He says the excitement of doing those kinds of things - the pressure of doing those kinds of things - no, it wasn't very different from riding.

"You had to get it exactly right," he says, "or you looked like a fool. It really was pretty similar to racing. I really was happy doing those things. The comeback wasn't about me needing to race again."

* * *

The knees made him retire the first time. That was 1999. Stevens had just won the Breeders' Cup juvenile on a horse called Anees, but his right knee had swollen so to the size of a basketball, and it hurt so much he could not thing of anything else.

Enough. All his life, he'd lived with this pain. He wore a brace when he was seven. Still he rode. He suffered countless injuries, fractures, bone cracks, busted ribs. Still he rode. He made weight, and lived hard. Still he rode. His knee hurt so badly that he went to ride in England, on grass, in the desperate hope that it would soften the ride and ease his pain. The pain was not eased, but once in England, he rode a horse named Blueprint for Queen Elizabeth II.

"Wait until after a furlong before you make your move," she said.

"Yes, your majesty," he said, and he did.

Through it all, he made weight, he shook off the low times, he followed owners suggestions, he gritted his teeth, and he endured the pain, and he rode. And then, finally, the pain was too much. "I'm only 37," he said with tears in his eyes, "and it was just taken away."

Ten months later, he was riding again.

* * *

"When I was announcing with Tom Hammond," Stevens says, "I had the second best seat in the house."

He is waiting to do a spot on The Today Show. All week, he has been doing interviews about his comeback. He says the same thing. "It's great to be back." "I'm exciting about running in the Derby again." "I feel great."

And now, every few seconds, someone new comes up to congratulate him, to wish him luck, to say that they will be betting on him at the Derby. Stevens flashes a big smile, offers a firm handshake, signs an autograph. He's good at this part of the job, always has been good at it - reporters treasure him, fans adore him, owners have wanted him to ride their horses - but it is not what drives him.

"To be honest with you," he says of his seat in the announcing booth, "sometimes, that was the BEST seat in the house."

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* * *

In 2003, the year he became an actor, the year he almost died, the ghost of George Woolf enveloped Gary Stevens. They were so alike, Stevens and Woolf, two good-looking jockeys who grew up in horse families, who knew the secrets of Santa Anita, who lived a big life. They called Woolf "The Iceman" because of the cool he displayed in the hottest moments of the race. Ice, of course, was Stevens' temperature too.

Woolf rode Seabiscuit to victory in his famous 1938 match race against War Admiral, and it was this that deeply connected the two jockeys. Sixty-five years later, "Seabiscuit" movie director, Gary Ross, needed someone to play Woolf, and right off, after seeing Stevens for only a second, he said: "That's him."

Stevens was not eager in the beginning. "Pal," he remembered saying to Ross the first time, "you don't have enough money, and I don't have enough time."

In time, Stevens came to realize that Hollywood has plenty of money, and he had plenty of time. He not only played Woolf in Seabiscuit - to rave reviews - he met his future wife, Angie, on the set.

There was a sad ending to George Woolf's life, though. When he was 35, he was running the fourth race at Santa Anita, and he fell from his horse. He died the next day.

And in 2003, at Arlington Park, Gary Stevens fell was thrown from his horse. He was stomped on so hard, his left lung collapsed. The pain he felt was unlike anything he had ever felt before. On the track, then again in the ambulance, he was sure he was going to die.

Less than a month later, he was riding again.

* * *

Friends say Stevens looks happier than he has in a while. It not like he seemed unhappy when he was retired . all the television guys rave about how much they liked working with him. He was funny and thoughtful and worked hard. On television, like on the track, like on the drums, he had to be perfect.

But they say there's something fuller about him now, something hard to describe. It's like his emotions are closer to the surface.

Slideshow

Derby celebs

Stars show up at Churchill Downs for 138th Run for the Roses.

But Stevens insists it isn't that easy. "I have no idea how long this will last," he says. "I'm not going to lie. I come back to the TV compound, and can't help but think: `Did I do the right thing?'

He thinks about the thrills of his racing days. There were, literally, thousands of them. He thinks about Thunder Gulch at the Kentucky Derby in 1995. That was one of the 10 biggest upsets in Derby history - that little chestnut colt that nobody took seriously powered down the stretch and won by 2« lengths and Stevens just held on for the ride. "I don't know why things happen the way they do," an overjoyed Stevens said after that race, "but you don't ask questions."

He thinks about Victory Gallop, all but beaten at the Belmont by five lengths by the great Real Quiet - so far back that Stevens stood in the saddle and essentially gave up - only then Victory Gallop's stride kicked in, and he rushed forward, and Stevens held on, and they won together by a nose.

A jockey is told: It's never about the last race. It's about the next race. There is always a next race, just a few minutes away, the next horse, the next owner, the next silks, the next race. Gary Stevens lived that way for a long time.

"I don't know how long this will last," he says. "I'm enjoying it now. I think that's what matters. As long as I enjoy it. Right now I feel good. I feel really good.

"But who knows? I can tell you if my knees start barking again, it will end. It can end anytime, really. Hey, I might ride in the Kentucky Derby and decide that's it, and you will see me up in the booth announcing for the Preakness. . One thing you will never see is a story saying that Gary Stevens is retiring. That won't happen."

He smiles and says, "I will call it a leave of absence."

He does not seem to have much of a chance to win in this year's Derby on Oxbow. But, you never know - rain heads for Louisville, the track may soon be mud, the horses are all young and raw and nobody is ever much good at picking the Derby. Only four favorites have won in the last 33 years.

Anyway, it's another ride. Gary Stevens is 50, he's been doing this since he was 17, and he says he will take Oxbow to the front and then hold on to the lead for as long as he can.

"The great thing is that nobody's pressuring me to keep doing this," he says, but you look at him and realize that this isn't entirely true.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

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Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



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