Gary Stevens, who just turned 50, says so far his return to racing in January of this year, has gone better than expected.
“I’m in heaven and having a ball and the horses are running well for me. I’m very appreciative of the opportunities that have been given to me, at the level they’ve been given to me. “
Stevens retired in 2005 after an exemplary racing career as one of the most successful jockeys in racing. The three-time Kentucky Derby winner has also won the Preakness twice, the Belmont Stakes three times and has set a host of other records. He’s currently racing in Santa Anita, California where he holds the record for Santa Anita Derby wins – nine times.
Stevens also garnered fans outside the traditional racing community with his portrayal of legendary jockey George Woolf in the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit.” Since leaving racing, Stevens has worked as a racing analyst for NBC and does commentary for NBC and HRTV. He still plans on handling those duties but after seven years off the track, he decided it was time to return to his greatest passion. He says he’s been able to overcome some of the health issues that plagued him when he retired.
“I was really fighting my weight. I think I had a lot of burn out from racing for so many years, and the pain of my knees, just never giving them proper time to really cool down and stop hurting.
With the help of increased rehabilitation, he was able to get in better shape and overcome his chronic knee pain.
“I went through a fitness program up in Seattle with Dr. Mark Dedomenico who has Pegasus Thoroughbred Training Center, as well as one of the biggest gyms in the country and I spent two months up there,” explains Stevens. “And I got to a level of fitness and my knees weren’t hurting and I said, ‘If I can do this, I can damn sure ride in some races, if we pick and choose a little bit.’”
After two and a half months of racing in California, Stevens will return to Kentucky to ride in the upcoming Spring Meets at both Keeneland and Churchill Downs.
“I still have my home in Louisville and I can’t wait to get back. We’ll be out there for the start of Keeneland. At the end of this month, I’ll be there, that’s home to me.”
Stevens also admits to eyeing the Kentucky Derby, hoping to one day win it again.
“That’s one of the reasons I came back,” he says.
He admits he’s not sure yet whether he’ll be able to ride in Derby 139.
"I don’t know what side of the rail I’m going to be on. I’ll be there one way or the other, either announcing it with Tom Hammond (for NBC Sports) or I’ll be riding. And with this new point system they have to get into the Kentucky Derby, I don’t think anybody even has a clue as to who’s going to qualify to be in it right now. I’ve got my hand in the cookie jar on about five different horses and I don’t know if that’s going to be enough.”
Riding in as many Derby Prep Races as he can remains a challenge.
“Unfortunately a lot of them fall on the same day and you can only be in one place at one time. The Florida Derby and the Louisiana Derby are on the same day. The Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby are on the same day. And I’ve got an opportunity in each of them so I have to be lucky and wise where I choose to go.”
But Stevens says he’ll also make his choices based on the people he’s riding for now in California who have been so supportive of his comeback.
“That’s going to have a lot to do with it, whether I’m riding in the Derby or not.”
And his TV job also remains a factor.
“I’ve told my bosses at NBC that I’m going to think I’ve got a heck of a shot of winning the Kentucky Derby before I’ll give up my position of sitting next to Tom."
Either way, Stevens is excited to be back in the saddle with so many possibilities in front of him.
“You never know what’s going to happen in life and I try not to pass by any gates that are open, you know? If one gate close, another one opens up, and I’ll try to pass through as many as I can.”
Photo: Courtesy of Cheryl Ann Quigley/Shutterstock.com
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