Gary Stevens reached for the white wooden folding chair next to him and tapped his knuckles on it.
“Knock wood,” the Hall of Fame jockey said with a grin.
At a Tuesday morning news conference to promote the 2017 Breeders’ Cup that will be held for the first time at Del Mar, Stevens was considering his prospects for appearing in horse racing’s biggest weekend come November.
There is every reason to believe Stevens will be there and riding, considering he has been waiting an entire career for something this grand to take place at the seaside track at which he has spent so many summers.
But more than most, he knows there are no guarantees in his game.
Stevens spent seven years in retirement before returning to racing in 2013. Then in 2014 he underwent surgery to replace his right knee. He returned the same year, and last season his 40 wins included a triumph for the ages (and the aged) ride aboard Beholder, who edged Songbird by a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Even on that wonderful day, Stevens knew he was facing another surgery and another comeback — this time for replacement of a hip that had quickly deteriorated, leaving him with bone grinding on bone.
On Monday, Stevens will turn 54 years old. He has slipped into the irons 28,787 times in competition (winning more than 5,000 times).
“I’ve got to re-prove myself. It’s just part of the game,” said Stevens, who has 11 Breeders’ Cup victories. “You’re in the Hall of Fame, but age is not on my side in a lot of owners’ eyes. But the people who know me know how hard I work. I’ve been through this enough times to know my capabilities and know what to expect of myself.”
He then added one very big caveat: “If I’m not up to my standards in the first month back, I won’t continue.”
Stevens said the “opening day” for his return to racing is March 10 at Santa Anita. On that day, he will be five days short of three months removed from his surgery in December. He said he began riding live horses 10 days ago after practicing on his mechanical horse before that.
“I’m good,” he said confidently. “I would have already pulled the plug if I had any doubt.”
Give modern medicine an assist in Stevens’ return. He pulled out his cellphone Tuesday to show pictures of his X-rays. A metal piece with a ball on the end was inserted into his femur. The hip socket also was replaced.
Stevens said he has no more than about a 4-inch scar. He said the surgery took 58 minutes, he was walking two hours later and he left the hospital the next day. Four days later Stevens attended Santa Anita’s opening day and walked around with very little discomfort.
“My pedometer said I walked 2.6 miles,” he said with a hint of pride. “No cane or anything.”
“The hardest thing after the knee was getting off the pain meds. It was brutal,” Stevens said. “I was off the pain meds for this in 10 days. That’s a major difference.”
Stevens said people have come to call him the “$6-Million Man” for all his artificial parts.
“More like ‘$6,000 Man,’ ” he quipped.
Another Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith, attended Tuesday’s proceedings and marveled at his longtime friend and rival.
“You talk to guys who have hip replacement or knee replacement, and they’re just happy to get off the couch and go to the refrigerator,” Smith, 51, said. “He’s a guy who’s competing and beating us. He’s beating guys who are 20 years old.
“He’s a freak of nature. He’s something else. I can’t describe it.”
Stevens proved last year he hasn’t lost much of his edge. He produced a winner in 13% of his 316 mounts and was in the money 43% of the time.
He said his love and the excitement for the sport keeps pulling him back.
“I love what I do,” Stevens said. “I would rather go out and ride a horse on a Saturday afternoon than go play 18 holes of golf. I’m in a lot better mood — win or lose.”
Both jockeys expressed what sounded like genuine excitement at the prospects of competing in a Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar for the first time.
“Del Mar has become my favorite city to be in, and you add my two favorite days on top of it, I can’t wait,” said Smith, who spent the bulk of his career riding at East Coast tracks.
Said Stevens, who rode in the first Breeders’ Cup in 1984 at Hollywood Park: “I’ve seen Del Mar grow and change — not only the city, but the race track. We didn’t know that this would ever come.”
Stevens and Smith compared Del Mar’s “boutique” confines and feel to Kentucky’s Keeneland, which hosted the 2015 Breeders’ Cup to rave reviews. Smith said there seemed to be more attention to detail at the smaller venue and expects the same for the crowd of 37,500 each day at Del Mar.
“I think it’s going to be incredible,” Smith said.