Way past his prime, jockey Gary Stevens can still ride like a winner

Gary Stevens won more than 5,000 races before retiring. Now almost 50, he's staging a decent comeback at Santa Anita. 'The fire never went out,' he says.

It was late in the day Saturday at Santa Anita, when grandpa Gary Stevens decided to show the young'uns a thing or two about horse racing.

The starting gate was almost full for the ninth race, the $150,000 Grade II featured San Marcos Stakes. Eleven other riders were in place, waiting. Most of them were young enough to be Stevens' sons. Stevens was aboard the race's third choice, Slim Shadey, a 5-year-old gelding with three victories in 23 starts. Slim Shadey is a nice horse but not to be mistaken for Secretariat.

Exactly 20 years ago, Stevens had won this same race. But that was in his prime, a prime that accounted for more than 5,000 wins, more than $220 million in purses — of which 10% was his — and a career that had included three Kentucky Derby victories, three Belmonts, two Preaknesses and eight Breeders' Cup titles.

Stevens was making stretch runs alongside the likes of Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron and Eddie Delahoussaye when most of the 11 other riders waiting in the starting gate were getting their first leg up. Orlando Mojica, waiting aboard longshot Fast Track in the No. 9 hole, got his first win two years after Stevens was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 1998. Julien Leparoux, perched on Bridge of Gold in No. 8, had been a Stevens pupil and recently gave him a hug of encouragement, just as Stevens had encouraged Leparoux, now 29, when he was getting started.

Slim Shadey seemed uninterested in loading. The gate crew would urge him forward, but the time just didn't seem right for him. Or maybe for his veteran jockey.

And so, the rest of the field waited. It wasn't a terribly long delay, happens often in racing. Sometimes, it just doesn't feel right for the horse to load. Sometimes, it is the rider who has that feeling. Racing, like other sports, thrives on instinct and, occasionally, gamesmanship.

You could imagine brows furrowing in the gate. The rider they awaited was beloved, but to many of them, probably over the hill. It had been seven years since he had been a force, since he made his retirement announcement, saying his knees were too sore and he was tired of fighting his weight.

"I'm Italian," Stevens said. "I like to eat."

What more could he need in life? He was a network TV analyst on Triple Crown races. He had starred in the movie "Seabiscuit" and also in the high-profile, but short-lived, HBO series on racing, "Luck."

"I was in a bit of denial," he says now. "I told myself I was still there at the biggest races, still involved. And I could eat whatever I wanted. I wished I had used a different phrase. The fire never went out. I wish I had called it a leave of absence."

All of the 11 who sat in the gate, awaiting Stevens and Slim Shadey, had been part of the welcome-back party. Even if he was approaching his 50th birthday (March 6), and even if this could very well be an ill-advised, midlife jockey crisis, his presence deserved special recognition. And so, they had built him his own comfort corner in the jocks' room, with a big easy chair and a floor-to-ceiling curtain. Older people, after all, need their privacy. The only thing missing was a rack for his walking cane.

In the friendly confines of this rest home wing of the Santa Anita jock room, Stevens entertained a reporter before the big race Saturday. Cellphone pictures of 10-month-old granddaughter Kaylynn were a priority. "My middle name is Lynn," Stevens said, proudly.

Then there was a viewing of his worst racing accident, right at the finish line of the 2003 Arlington Million in Chicago. Stevens' horse, Storming Home, crossed the finish line first, was spooked by a photographer, swerved badly and tossed Stevens, who was then trampled by trailing horses. The YouTube video, set to the music of "Chariots of Fire," is scary. But enough time has passed, and the collapsed lung and four broken bones in his back have healed, so he can laugh about it.

"I'm hurting all over and can't breathe and I'm in the ambulance with the paramedics," Stevens said. "And I hear the crowd booing. So I ask if they are booing me, and the paramedics tell me no, the bettors are booing because they just disqualified your horse for impeding horses behind it. They took down your number. Now I'm laughing, and it hurts so bad, but I can't stop."

Five weeks after that, Stevens was back in the saddle. His first ride was aboard Storming Home. They won.

Now, some 10 years later, it is time to go racing again. He had had 33 rides in his one-month comeback at Santa Anita, with two wins and 11 places. "I had second-itis," he said.

None of his wins were in stakes races. Now, it was time for the San Marcos, and some vintage Stevens.

Suddenly, Slim Shadey seemed interested in getting into the gate. He marched forward and barely had to pause in the No. 13 hole before the gate sprang open and he dashed out. The break of Slim Shadey and Stevens resembled a guy taking the baton on the third leg of an Olympic track relay. Slim Shadey is at his best when he gets to the front, and that's where he went, never to be caught.

The stretch run was like a flashback to the '90s. Stevens in front. Hands caressing the reins. Body hardly moving. Smooth. No wasted motion. Joe Talamo, aboard Interaction, took the best run at Stevens, but couldn't get there.

Talamo was born in 1990, two years after Stevens won his first Kentucky Derby.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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