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Stevens’ Wife Took Honest Part in Filly’s Success

Having ridden three Kentucky Derby winners, jockey Gary Stevens was fantasizing about riding another the other night.

“Suppose I’m coming down to the wire,” Stevens said to his wife, Nicola. “And then, here comes the filly [Honest Lady], also coming down to the wire. Who would you want to win?”

Nicola thought for a moment.

“Why, you,” she said.

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“Well,” Stevens said with a grin, “that’s a relief.”

Reminded of that conversation, Nicola said, “Oh, yes,” in her pleasant British accent. “I love that filly. But if it came between her and Gary in the Derby, my first priority would be with my husband.”

Still, Nicola Stevens, married to the jockey for almost a year, is the reason Honest Lady has even found a career at the track. And it isn’t Nicola saying so; that’s the opinion of trainer Bobby Frankel.

“I might not have gotten her to the races without Nikki,” Frankel said. “She first got [Honest Lady] to go. Now anybody can get on her.”

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Last summer, Frankel was a trainer forlorn. At Del Mar, he had this well-bred filly, a daughter of Seattle Slew. She was talented but unraced, and she refused to train. She’d go to the track and refuse to gallop. Frankel hadn’t had so much trouble with a recalcitrant horse since Honest Lady’s dam, Toussaud, tormented him in the early 1990s. Toussaud became a multiple stakes winner in spite of herself.

Nicola Stevens, a freelance exercise rider in Southern California since 1995, remembered working with a stubborn horse a few years before. She also had learned some things from Karl Webster, who had been successful with Lit De Justice, an uncooperative 6-year-old who won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and an Eclipse Award for trainer Jenine Sahadi in 1996.

The jockey’s wife asked Frankel if she could try galloping Honest Lady. And using one of the tricks of her trade, she got the filly to cooperate.

“I’d rather not go into detail,” she said. “What was important, I got her galloping, and I said to Bobby, ‘When you see her running, put the clock on her.’ ”

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Blinkers were added before Honest Lady’s first race.

“She started concentrating with the blinkers,” Nicola said. “The blinkers seem to give her security. Now, all you have to do is reward her. Spoil her to death.”

She’s definitely worth spoiling. In her two races, a maiden win at Hollywood Park the day after Thanksgiving, and then, after a brief illness, a 4 1/2-length victory in the Santa Ynez Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 24, Honest Lady has been ridden by Kent Desormeaux. And he has the mount again today when Frankel’s filly tries colts and two turns for the first time in the $200,000 San Rafael Stakes.

The local Kentucky Derby prospects, who are perceived as being a cut above the 3-year-olds in the East, have mostly been shadowboxing, but now, with the one-mile San Rafael, the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe on March 13 and the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby on April 3, their tickets to Churchill Downs will either be punched or shredded. Off just two races, Frankel sees in Honest Lady a filly who belongs in the mix.

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Gary Stevens will ride Prime Timber, one of trainer Bob Baffert’s Derby contenders, in the San Rafael. Second to Tactical Cat in the Hollywood Futurity, which was only his third race, Prime Timber is expected to be favored today.

If Honest Lady were to beat Prime Timber, Gary and Nicola Stevens wouldn’t be human if the obvious didn’t cross their minds: Frankel couldn’t have gotten into the vault if Nicola Stevens hadn’t come up with the right combination.

“This came up right away,” Nicola Stevens said. “Gary deserves all the credit. He backed me all the way in this.”

Nicola Woad Stevens, 29, doesn’t need to get up on Honest Lady in the mornings anymore. The filly has quit playing hard to get.

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Nicola works mostly for Sahadi and another trainer, Eddie Gregson. She grew up in Yorkshire, the part of northern England where the pudding and the Bronte sisters came from. She completed an equine program at Peterborough Tech, near Newmarket; worked as a teenager one summer for Lester Piggott, the legendary jockey turned trainer, and galloped horses for Lord Huntingdon when he was the trainer for Queen Elizabeth II.

Four years ago, new to California, Stevens went to work for trainer Richard Cross, a fellow Brit who had come over in the late 1970s.

“I have Richard Cross to thank for a lot,” Nicola said. “He let me gallop horses over here. He gave me my first big break.”

A break that, in a roundabout way, could take a gifted filly all the way to the Kentucky Derby.

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Horse Racing Notes

Randy Bradshaw may be returning to trainer Wayne Lukas’ barn. Bradshaw, 48, worked for Lukas for almost eight years, leaving in 1992 to form his own stable. “He would be the No. 1 guy in California, right under me,” Lukas said. “I’ll still be out here, but this would free me to be in Kentucky, the East Coast, Florida, whatever. It’s all up to Randy. The ball’s in his court.” Bradshaw, who has about 45 horses in training for numerous clients, including the Mace Siegel family and Ernie Paragallo, said he would make a decision within the next 10 days. Lukas’ operation now includes Padua Stable, Satish Sanan’s racing and breeding empire which is based at Silverleaf Farms near Ocala, Fla. Aristotle, second to Cape Canaveral and Exploit in his last two races, will be running for Bradshaw in the San Rafael.

Making her first start since Dec. 13, favored Tuzla rolled to an easy victory in the $150,000 Buena Vista Handicap Saturday at Santa Anita. Ridden by Corey Nakatani for owner David Milch and trainer Julio Canani, the 5-year-old Panoramic mare rallied on the outside into the stretch and won without being asked for her best in the final furlong. In winning for the ninth time in 16 career starts, the 7-10 favorite paid $3.40. Supercilious, a 9-1 shot, was second, 2 1/2 lengths behind the winner, then came Green Jewel, Dance Parade, the 2-1 second choice, and Heptathlon. . . . In Florida, Behrens, who was second to Puerto Madero in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 30, won the $350,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap. Ridden by Jorge Chavez for owners William Clifton and Rudlein Stable and trainer H. James Bond, the 5-year-old son of Pleasant Colony won in 2:01 4/5 for the 1 1/4 miles. Archers Bay was second and Sir Bear third in the field of eight. . . . Earlier on the card at Gulfstream, 3-year-olds Lemon Drop Kid and Menifee both made successful returns. In the third race, Lemon Drop Kid, who won the Grade I Futurity at Belmont Park last Sept. 20, won as the favorite for trainer Flint Sculhofer and Menifee remained unbeaten in three tries in his first start since last Aug. 21 at Saratoga. The son of Harlan is owned by Arthur Hancock III and James Stone, trained by Elliott Walden and was ridden by Pat Day. . . . There is a two-day Pick Six carry-over of $523,126.47 for this afternoon.

Staff writer Bob Mieszerski contributed to this story.

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