ARCADIA, Calif. -- As Gary Stevens walked into the Del Mar paddock in August, he couldn't help but wonder at the remarkable journey. Nothing could be better than this, the waft of a breeze from the Pacific, the balmy sunshine, the rapt attention of fans and, best of all, a terrific racehorse to sit astride as a partner in a profoundly self-defining moment.
He couldn't have imagined any of it back in the late 1970s, when as a teenager he began riding quarter horses at fairs, nor could he have known where this was going to lead him when, at 16, he won his first thoroughbred race, at Les Bois Park in Idaho, on a horse his father trained, Lil Star.
As the riding titles piled up, along with the Breeders' Cup and Triple Crown victories, there was no escaping the hurly-burly of it all, and he probably couldn't pause long enough to reflect on just how remarkable it had been, this journey of his. And so it struck him suddenly and forcefully, like a revelation, that day at Del Mar.
Anybody would give anything, do anything, to be here with all this and to ride these horses. And it'll be the same for me here this weekend at the Breeders' Cup.
"-- Jockey Gary Stevens
"I told myself this is it," Stevens said, recalling that moment of appreciation. "Anybody would give anything, do anything, to be here with all this and to ride these horses. And it'll be the same for me here this weekend at the Breeders' Cup."
Perhaps it's not remarkable that he's appreciating the sport and savoring the victories as never before. Maturity, after all, does that, offering perspective as a consolation for senescence. But this indeed should inspire wonderment: At age 50, Gary Stevens is riding better than ever.
In January, two months before his birthday, when he announced that he was going to return after being out of the saddle for seven years, Stevens just hoped he would get to ride some good ones, the sort of horses that make all the sacrifice and work worthwhile and can send a jockey's heart, even an aged one, soaring. But he couldn't have anticipated this.
He would have been happy, he said, to ride just one Breeders' Cup contender in one of the sport's championship races. But he'll be among the busiest people at Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday, with nine Breeders' Cup mounts: Ever Rider in the Marathon, Got Shades in the Juvenile Turf, Beholder in the Distaff, She's a Tiger in the Juvenile Fillies, Marketing Mix in the Filly & Mare Turf, Starship Truffles in the Filly & Mare Sprint, Caracortado in the Turf Sprint, Indy Point in the Turf and Mucho Macho Man in the Classic.
In the Classic, he'll compete against two jockeys, Luis Saez and Joseph O'Brien, who weren't even born when Stevens won his first Breeders' Cup race, the 1990 Turf on In the Wings. Already this year, Stevens has won 19 stakes, including the Preakness on Oxbow, the Zenyatta on Beholder and the Awesome Again on Mucho Macho Man.
In September, he traveled to Franklin, Ky., to ride Temeraine in the Kentucky Turf Cup. Kentucky Downs has a unique course, pear-shaped and undulating, with a sharp first turn, a dip into an expansive second turn and an uphill grind to the wire. Jockeys typically require several rides around the course to get a feel for it. Stevens never had ridden there, and so one morning, he walked the course, or rather examined it, all 1 5/16 miles, inspecting every dip, turn and undulation. In the afternoon, on his first mount at the track, in his only race there, he decisively, even boldly, moved Temeraine into a prominent position entering the second turn, waited patiently and charged through a narrow opening along the rail to get up in the final strides. It was a masterful ride.
Before the sun sets on the Breeders' Cup, he'll be among the top 20 jockeys in the country based on earnings -- and he's 50. He won't say it, and he doesn't have to because others are saying it for him: He's riding better than ever.
"I'm amazed," said Jerry Bailey, who won seven Eclipse Awards as the nation's outstanding jockey and now does commentary and analysis for NBC. "I think it's remarkable, but that might be too timid a word for what Gary has done. … Not to disparage the jockeys he's riding against, but he seems so much smarter than anybody else out there. He's just a step ahead of everybody. He's more thoughtful, more cerebral. That happens when a jockey gets older. Mentally, he's able to make up for whatever he's lost physically."
"He looks like he's 30 again," said Ron Anderson, who worked as Stevens' agent from 1990 to 2000 and now represents Joel Rosario. "For somebody Gary's age, after not riding for seven years, to be riding at this level -- well, it's amazing. He just goes out there and outsmarts everybody."
Stevens began his comeback to regain that special intimacy an athlete has with his sport and, in his case, with these horses whose fate he shares. That reawakened him. It led to a renewed appreciation, and not just for the sport but also for his long professional journey and modest provenance.
"When I saw what kind of shape he was in, I wanted to give him a chance," said Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, for whom Stevens will ride Beholder and Indy Point in the Breeders' Cup. "And I'm glad I did. He could be riding better than ever."
Now that he's back, completely back, Stevens has begun, without even trying, to redefine himself. Long before he retired, he had his place in the Hall of Fame and his reputation as a jockey of imposing accomplishment. But he's become even more. It's the extraordinarily rare athlete who can say, or know even if he won't say, that at 50 that he's better than ever.