BALTIMORE — It could have been from a movie, or a television show, or the winner’s circle, because Gary Stevens is a versatile performer who’s appeared in all three. But the picture of him that caught his young daughter’s eye on Wednesday captured Stevens doing what he was born to do, and what he does best: Riding a horse, and winning a race.
“Daddy, that’s you! Why are there pictures of you everywhere we go?” 6-year-old Madison asked Stevens, as they made their way inside Pimlico’s clubhouse to the draw for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.
Fair question. Then again, little Madison likely hasn’t grasped yet that her father is horse racing royalty. A Hall of Fame jockey with more than 5,000 victories in the United States, Stevens has a riding record few can match. His performance in the Triple Crown races is best viewed in perfect symmetry: Three wins in the Kentucky Derby, three wins in the Preakness, three wins in the Belmont.
The photo that mesmerized Madison was a shot of Stevens two years ago, arm raised after crossing the finish line, taking Oxbow to victory at the 2013 Preakness. Even though he’s 52 years old, Stevens doesn’t want that to be his final Triple Crown victory — he’s hoping to add another on Saturday when he rides Firing Line, and also has aspirations to someday resume work as a trainer — but it is his most recent, and came after not one but two retirements.
Add the fact that Stevens had his right knee replaced 10 months ago, and even putting the silks on this Saturday is nothing short of impressive. He rode Firing Line to a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, and likes their chances in a race where much of the attention has been fixed on two other horses: Derby winner American Pharoah, and his stablemate, Dortmund, who finished third at Churchill Downs.
“I’m looking forward to Saturday. It’s actually very relaxing for me right now, a peaceful kind of time for me,” Stevens said on Thursday morning, after he observed Firing Line’s initial workout on the Pimlico track.
Stevens grew up in Idaho and comes from a horse-loving family: his father was a horse trainer, his mother a rodeo queen, and his older brother, Scott, is also a professional jockey. Stevens was riding by age 3, racing by 13, and made his Triple Crown debut at 22, in the 1985 Kentucky Derby. He won the race three years later, aboard Winning Colors.
He added Derby wins in 1995 (Thunder Gulch) and 1997 (Silver Charm), and also won the Preakness in 1997 (Silver Charm) and 2001 (Point Given). Stevens rode Thunder Gulch and Point Given to victories in the Belmont, and added another in 1998 with Victory Gallop.
But all those mounts over all those years took a physical toll — the right knee mostly, with 13 surgeries on it prior to getting it replaced — which led Stevens to twice walk away from riding. He retired the first time in 1999 for less than a year, then again in 2005. This time he stayed away for 7½ years.
He’s thrilled to be back.
“It’s been great. To be away for 7½ years and then to go through a knee replacement a year and a half after my return, and to be able to get back on the type of horses that I’m riding right now, it’s pretty amazing,” Stevens said. “To be riding, and back at a high level riding a horse like him, is pretty special.”
Stevens stayed busy, even during retirement. Maybe you’ve seen him: He starred in the movie “Seabiscuit,” playing jockey George “Iceman” Woolf. He was a cast member on the HBO series about horse racing, “Luck,” and joined NBC as an analyst during the network’s Triple Crown coverage. Stevens even spent time as an agent representing jockeys, and began to train horses.
That’s a pretty full card for a jockey who wasn’t riding.
“I actually liked training as much as I liked riding, but it’s a tough racket. When I saddled my first winner, it was as gratifying as winning the Kentucky Derby,” Stevens said. “And when I was doing ‘Luck,’ I was loving it. It was fulfilling, there was adrenaline. When they canceled that, I needed something back in my life. I wasn’t ready to just play golf and do television commentary. I took a shot and it’s worked out.”
Now he finds himself on a horse in Firing Line that many feel can challenge American Pharoah and Dortmund on Saturday.
Stevens likes the horse’s temperament. Firing Line owner Arnold Zetcher likes Stevens’s experience.
“Gary’s terrific. As seasoned as he is, I ask him questions and he gives me great answers, things I hadn’t even thought about,” Zetcher said. “The combination of Gary and [trainer] Simon [Callaghan] — the experience on one side, and Simon’s just a really strong, upcoming trainer — it’s a good relationship.”
Getting back up on horses and finding work at the Preakness has produced a family reunion of sorts for Stevens this week. His oldest daughter from his first marriage lives in Baltimore, and has two young children, making Stevens a grandfather. His 6-year-old daughter and his 4-year-old granddaughter have become fast friends, despite the unique family dynamic. Or, maybe because of it.
Said Stevens: “It’s funny, my oldest granddaughter is with her [6-year-old] aunt, calling her ‘Auntie Maddie.’ So my daughter goes, ‘You don’t have to call me Auntie Maddie, you can just call me Maddie.’ And she goes, ‘OK, Auntie Maddie.’ ”
Stevens is in a good place. His knee no longer bothers him, allowing him to ride. That, combined with his passion for being one of the all-time best jockeys, is allowing him to win. If he can cross the line first on Saturday, it would mean more pictures for Madison to look at, and also add another accomplishment to what’s been an off-and-on career, one that Stevens never dreamed would last this long.
“I remember telling [jockeys] Eddie Delahoussaye and Bill Shoemaker, when I was about 26 or 27 years old, that I was going to retire when I was 30. Delahoussaye looked at me and laughed,” Stevens said. “Here I am, still going. I wouldn’t have thought it.
“Age is just a number at the end of the day.”