The Curious Case of Gary Stevens
Hall of Famer Gary Stevens says he is retiring as a jockey from horse racing.
Updated: Nov. 30, 2018 • 2:19 PM ET
Racetracks will miss Gary Stevens atop thoroughbreds.
As many were, I was thinking this past week about the career of jockey Gary Stevens. He was much more than a jockey, actually.
Last week, we learned that he would not ride again. His career as a jockey is done. Stevens continues to be an ambassador for the sport of horse racing; and I don’t really know what a gentleman should look or act like, but I think the archetype should be him.
He has this quiet stillness and demeanor that is absolutely captivating to observe. I would like to think the way Stevens rode horses in races is indicative of the way he carries himself.
He started his riding career in the late 1970s and like the character from the short story and movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, he only seems to get younger as the years go by. As time progressed, though, he developed this level of maturity that was so calming and resolute.
In the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit”, I remember thinking that the part Stevens played was so unlike him. The way he portrayed the famous 1930s and 40s jockey, George “The Iceman” Woolf, seemed overly brash, and it was amusing to see Stevens in a giant 10-gallon cowboy hat. Interestingly enough, when it mattered most to the trajectory of the story, I thought Stevens at times overshadowed his counterpart, Tobey Maguire. It was stellar; that was Gary Stevens.
Stevens suffered a fall recently that damaged his spinal cord, and there would be no resurrection this time. He had come back from injuries and even retirement, before managing a more majestic Brett Favre-esque return.
He had retired from the sport less than a decade ago and took up a position in the broadcast booth. He was superb, and I hope those lugheads at NBC are on the phone with his agent right now. Back then, the itch apparently was still present, so he returned smarter, seasoned and as good as ever.
Jockeys aren’t like other athletes. They have this amazingly difficult routine because everything is about their weight — less is more, essentially. Everything they put in their bodies is collated and quantified.
Stevens was no different, and even with advanced proteins and vitamin technology as it is today, it was surely difficult to keep pace. To be able to ride into your 40s and 50s, you have to have a Benjamin Button mind and body. It’s almost like winding the clock back every day and getting younger, even if you aren’t supposed to.
Those scales don’t lie. Few can do it.
Stevens is part of that generation of jockeys, along with Mike Smith, that lived through the 1980s and 90s when horse racing’s popularity was on the wane. Stevens helped to keep it on life support. He won the Kentucky Derby three times, once on a filly named Winning Colors (which is virtually impossible today, since the Kentucky Derby points system favors male horses), and garnered multiple wins in every other important race across the country.
Out of all the stellar moments in his career, though, I was most impressed with one particular event that wasn’t about hitting the wire by a nose or coming from the clouds. It was the 2014 Kentucky Derby, and California Chrome had just lived up to his status as the favorite and won. After the race, tradition dictates that the jockeys dismount and go through a tunnel to be interviewed about their trip around the track.
That year, Stevens rode a John Sadler horse named Candy Boy, and he went ambling up to the mic in the tunnel, hotter than a $2 pistol. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Stevens fuming like that. Still, the fume had a measured pace to it. And, even though he was out of breath and covered in dirt, which happens when you go through a mile and a quarter, he composed himself and offered an editorial on the spot.
What set him off was another jockey, Rajiv Maragh, who was on the No. 20 horse, Wicked Strong. Stevens claimed, and the video corroborates this, that Maragh used dangerous tactics to take him and another jockey out of the race by swinging wide and crashing his horse into Stevens. He didn’t propose pistols at dawn and for Maragh to name a second, but he did offer his displeasure in a direct and concise way.
In this brief moment, that had nothing to do with triumph, he showed his passion for the sport, his level of concern for safety in such a dangerous pursuit, and it summed up why I admire Gary Stevens. On that first sunny Saturday in May, he made those comments because he knew that time is immutable; it cannot be halted, nor slowed.
Jockeys stare down peril and live an existence that is full of the threat of injury. George Woolf died from a concussion after falling off a horse at Santa Anita in 1946. Maragh experienced it after one of his mounts fell on top of him and broke several of his vertebrae and punctured his lung in 2015; he returned to racing after more than a year of rehab. Perhaps he should have listened to Stevens’ editorial back in 2014.
Though a timeless figure, Stevens’ riding days may be through, but we’ll always remember his pluck, determination and most of all, the character he exuded both on and off the track.
There will never be another Gary Stevens, and I am fine with that.
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