ARCADIA, Calif. -- The walk back to the Santa Anita jocks' room wasn't long, but it required several minutes. "Gary," fans called, their imaginations having created, probably with the aid of some cashed tickets, a relationship that permitted first-name familiarity. Gary Stevens, smiling in response to hearing his name, repeatedly stopped to sign their programs or whatever else they might put in front of him.
Years from now, the 30th Breeders' Cup won't be remembered for its sparkling performances, its repeat winners, its down-to-the-wire battles or Game On Dude's annual oviposit; it'll be remembered, most of all, for the age-defying, reason-refuting comeback of Gary Stevens. Winning with Beholder on Friday and with Mucho Macho Man on Saturday, Stevens, at age 50, became only the second jockey ever to win the Distaff and the Classic in the same year. (With Ajina and Skip Away, Mike Smith first did it in 1997.)
After the Classic, Stevens described the victory as the "icing" on his "cake" of a career. It was "the ultimate feeling," he said, at his age to win such a race. And indeed it was downright amazing: Stevens eased Mucho Macho Man back off the pace as the field entered the first turn, avoiding involvement in the duel on the front and putting the giant of a colt in a perfect stalking position. That might have been the winning move. Or maybe it was that little piece of subtlety in the second turn, where Stevens eased Mucho Macho Man to the outside and in doing so got the jump on Declaration of War.
Turning into the stretch, Stevens just rode, entreating and pushing and beseeching, but resisting the whip, and the big horse poured himself into the effort. Joseph O'Brien worked furiously on Declaration of War, and Luis Saez, after swinging Will Take Charge six-wide, had the long-striding chestnut rolling.
But O'Brien and Saez couldn't catch the man who won his first Breeders' Cup race long before they were even born. That's right: O'Brien was born on May 23, 1993, Saez on May 19, 1992, and Stevens won his first Breeders' Cup race, the Turf, on In The Wings, on Oct. 27, 1990. And so after 1¼ miles, two youngsters and an old but wise man finished together at the wire at Santa Anita, inches separating them, a nose and a head. And the old man won.
Yes, it was amazing. That's the word Ron Anderson, Stevens' agent many years ago, and Jerry Bailey, the seven-time Eclipse Award winning jockey, relied on repeatedly in describing Stevens: "amazing."
It's amazing that after not riding for seven years, Stevens was able to get himself in shape to ride again, but he's lean and taut. It's amazing that he has been able to recover those skills and sharpen them so that he can compete at the highest level. But, most of all, it's amazing that, day after day, he goes out there and outrides youngsters who, in some cases, weren't even born when he won his first Breeders' Cup race. But he does. He outthinks them, outmaneuvers them, outdoes them, and in the end, at the wire, he's winning.
The Breeders' Cup proclaims itself to be a championship event, but after Friday's and Saturday's races, the Eclipse voting might have tumbled in the whitewater rapids. Who's the champion 3-year-old? Will Take Charge did little in the races that are usually definitive, the Triple Crown series, but with his runner-up finish Saturday he completed the season as the best of the group. Or could Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, pull a title out of the hat in the Cigar Mile?
And who's the champion 3-year-old filly? Princess of Sylmar won the definitive races, but Beholder, who won the Distaff in sparkling style, will probably get the vote. Who's the champion older male, Game On Dude, who seemed invincible until Saturday, or Mucho Macho Man, who won only two races all year? Will the champion 2-year-olds be horses with one stakes victory on the season?
And will the Horse of the Year be a turf miler specialist? Wise Dan won the award last year based on his versatility, but this year he followed a path that was more safe than bold. Still, he dominated his division with bravura, and he'll probably be Horse of the Year, but it's not a vote that will be made joyfully.
This one, however, will: Gary Stevens, the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding jockey.