As Gary Stevens begins to sort out the rest of his life, he’s easily reminded of his inauspicious beginnings in Southern California, of the days at Santa Anita when a win a week was more the norm than the chance to ride a live horse in virtually every stakes race.
Stevens’ introduction to Santa Anita was harsh: As a teenage apprentice in 1980, he won with only four of 90 mounts, many of the opportunities coming with horses that nobody else wanted to ride. Suspecting that the grass would be greener anywhere else, he took off for the Northwest United States, where tracks such as Longacres and Portland Meadows weren’t stuffed with Hall of Fame jockeys.
In two seasons at Longacres, in suburban Seattle, Stevens won almost 400 races, setting a track record for wins one year and breaking it the next year. By 1984, he was 21 and it was time for another run at Santa Anita.
“A lot of the top riders were still there,” Stevens said this week, a few days after bum knees forced his retirement. “But I thought Shoe [Bill Shoemaker] only had about four or five years left. The same with a lot of the others--Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, Fernando Toro and Laffit Pincay. I thought all of them only had about four or five years left. Well, it turned out that they all outlasted me except Shoe and Toro.”
Pat Day, who preceded Stevens into the Racing Hall of Fame by six years when he was elected in 1991, recalled recently that he hasn’t had a serious injury since he broke a collarbone 10 years ago. For Stevens, the bone-crushing spills were far more frequent. He went to work every day with a fatalistic mind-set.
“It’s not if you’re going down,” he once said, “it’s when.”’
His first major accident in California occurred during a morning workout at Santa Anita in the fall of 1985. There were multiple injuries, among them a dislocated shoulder and badly torn cartilage in the right knee.
He came back sooner than expected, in two months instead of four. Trainer Laz Barrera had been giving him some of his best horses to ride--they would win the 1986 Kentucky Oaks with Tiffany Lass at Churchill Downs--and Stevens was worried that he would lose the choice mounts while he recuperated.
“If there’s a regret I have about my career, it’s that I didn’t take care of my body as well as I should have,” he said this week.
In 1990, a few days before he was to ride Cuddles for trainer Wayne Lukas in the Hollywood Starlet, one of Stevens’ mounts was on the lead when it broke down. Six trailing horses went over the top of the fallen jockey, and he should have taken some time off. Instead, he was back for the Starlet.
“They injected me [with a painkiller] about 20 minutes before the race,” Stevens said. “I thought the one race was that important. But it was little things like that that took their toll. I did things for the day, rather than worrying about the longevity of my career.”
Stevens won the Starlet with Cuddles, and a lot more for Lukas. With Winning Colors, they had teamed to win the Kentucky Derby--the first of three Derbies for Stevens--in 1988, and there was a Lukas-Stevens encore at Churchill Downs with Thunder Gulch in 1995.
In 1987, a week before the Breeders’ Cup, Stevens was sidelined after suffering a broken ankle in a starting-gate accident at Santa Anita. At the most recent Breeders’ Cup, in November, Stevens rode at Gulfstream Park even though his knees would have voted against it.
“If you had seen my knee the night before, you would have laid heavy odds that I wasn’t going to ride,” he said. “But I had Anees [who won the Juvenile] and Royal Anthem [who finished second to Daylami in the Turf], and I wanted to be there.”
Last June, Stevens left California for England, hoping that steady horsebacking over grass would be an elixir for his knees.
“That backfired on me,” he said. “The courses there were undulating, compared to the flat courses in the U.S., and there were both left-handed and right-handed turns. There was more shock for my legs over there than there was here.”
By the end of January, Stevens should know which direction his new career will be taking. He will be 37 on March 6.
“I know it’s going to take a big adjustment,” he said. “The first few mornings [after he retired], I had a difficult time staying away [from the track]. There’s been some depression. For a long time, I was the first guy in the jocks’ room and the last guy out, so I’m definitely going to miss that part. I’m going to have to take a deep breath and move on.”
The Thoroughbred Corp., the formidable racing outfit owned by Prince Ahmed Salman of Saudi Arabia, had hoped that Stevens would ride under his contract for at least three or four more years, then move into management. Salman still wants Stevens to work for him.
“They’re putting no pressure on me,” Stevens said. “And they’ve made me a nice offer. It’s an offer that was more generous than I expected, and it’s very tempting. But rather than make a critical decision right away, I’m going to take a little time.”
His four children from his first marriage range in age from 7 to 16.
“This is one of the positives,” Stevens said. “I’m going to be able to do things with them that I didn’t do before. I was riding so much that I was mentally tired most of the time. I just didn’t feel like doing anything else.”
Mike Pegram, a candidate for the Eclipse Award as owner of the year, won his 21st stake of 1999 Thursday when Gibson County, a colt Pegram also bred, beat Stormy Jack by a neck in the $150,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes at Santa Anita.
“It’s been a phenomenal year,” Pegram said. “They’ve named this place right--the Great Race Place--and it’s a great place to win races. When I was driving to the track today, I thought about how it was 10 years ago, when I wasn’t close to anything like this. Back then, it seemed like there was no way I’d ever be here. There were a lot of lonely nights at Los Alamitos.”
Hollywood Park Inc. sold its last racetrack holding when Jerry Simms bought Turf Paradise in Phoenix for an undisclosed sum. Simms said that he plans to continue racing at the track. Hollywood Park Inc., which sold its flagship track, Hollywood Park, to Churchill Downs in May for $140 million, will concentrate on casino gambling and under a lease arrangement with Churchill continues to operate the casino at the Inglewood track.