For Stevens, most everything old is new again

Gary Stevens is on the move again. He's taking his two-year-old knee, his three-month-old hip, his truck, and his record of nearly 6,000 winners to Arkansas next week and then on to Kentucky, where the Hall of Famer will set up shop at Keeneland for the prestigious spring meet that begins April 7.

First, though, Stevens will fly in and out of New Mexico for Sunday's Grade 3 Sunland Derby, a nine-furlong event that has drawn an all-star array of riding talent to handle 3-year-olds from some of the nation's top stables.

The $800,000 casino-fueled purse explains the presence of not only Stevens but also Javier Castellano -- nominated this year to the Hall of Fame -- as well as Jose Ortiz, Florent Geroux, Joe Talamo, Martin Garcia, and two-time Kentucky Derby winner Mario Gutierrez.

Stevens will be riding Dilettante, a son of Unbridled's Song who needed eight swings before winning a maiden race at Oaklawn Park in late January, then finished a well-beaten fifth under Geroux in the Southwest Stakes, won by One Liner. Asked what made Dilettante worth the trip to Sunland, other than a $400,000 first prize, Stevens boiled it down to the essentials.

"He was a very nice winner two races back," Stevens said. "He ran a very credible race in the Southwest. And it's Wayne Lukas and Calumet."

That last part sealed the deal. The last time Stevens, Lukas, and Calumet Farm were associated with a 3-year-old, they stole the 2013 Preakness Stakes with Oxbow. (Sunday is Oxbow's birthday, by the way, for anyone who likes their hunches in neat packages.) Dilettante is still very much a work in progress, but the opposition is hardly daunting, and for the first time in memory, a horse with Sunland Park connections -- the unbeaten Conquest Mo Money -- will be well backed to beat the invaders from California and Florida.

Stevens has ridden at Sunland before, but he returns this weekend still savoring the taste of his last trip there with Firing Line, who won the 2015 Sunland Derby by 14 1/4 lengths at odds of 1-5. Dilettante's morning line is 12-1.

"He broke super sharp in the Southwest, and then he was possibly a little farther off the pace than you would have expected," Stevens said. "But Petrov set a super-hot pace and was able to hang on for second, so the track might have been a little bit of a merry-go-round that day. My horse was beaten only a couple of heads for third."

Since returning from hip-replacement surgery on March 9, Stevens had only 15 mounts through Thursday. His three wins included Thursday's feature at Santa Anita aboard the Irish filly September Stars for Paddy Gallagher. The rider was asked if the light workload was by design.

"Not at all," Stevens replied. "There's just no business, which is why I'm heading to Oaklawn and then to Kentucky. Doc Danner, who had Pat Day for all those years, will have my book at Keeneland."

As for the hip, one look at Stevens in action on September Stars -- his only mount of the day -- would seem to answer any questions about rehabilitation. It was nothing, he insists, compared to the pain and recovery from knee-replacement surgery.

"It took a while to get used to the knee, but from Day 1, the hip has felt like it's always been there," Stevens said. "I'd be happy if it stays like it is, but every day seems better than the day before. I was on the Equicizer three weeks after the surgery, so I sure didn't let anything fall apart."

Stevens, who just turned 53, is getting understandably tired of the age cracks and the bionic-man jokes that bubble up whenever he enters a room. On Sunday, at least, he must defer in terms of time served to Sunland veteran Ken Tohill, who turns 55 in June and is approaching 3,600 winners.

Local stalwarts like Tohill and Sunland leader Ry Eikleberry are usually pushed aside when the big boys come to town for a race like the Sunland Derby. Neither has a mount in the race.

"I remember when I was in Seattle and name riders would come in for the Longacres Mile," Stevens said, going back to the dawn of the 1980s. "I damn sure knew who they were. I was leading rider by many, and I wanted to showcase what I could do.

"Terry Lipham came in once to ride a horse in the Mile for Jerry Fanning," Stevens added. "There was a little stakes earlier on the card, and I was right next to him in the gate. I obliterated him coming out of there, which wasn't a very good show on my part."

Lipham, possibly the coolest cat to ever throw a leg over a racehorse, was barely fazed.

"I was really apologetic when we came back," Stevens said. "Terry took me aside and said, 'Let me show you something, kid, to keep a horse straight. Take a half-cross with your left hand, your stick in your right hand, then you can reach up …' Anyway, it was something he'd learned from his Quarter Horse days.

"You don't use it all the time," Stevens said, "but it's very effective when you do. I still use it today. In fact, I'll be using it on Sunday."