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Stevens back in Derby saddle

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who has been to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle three times, couldn't even get into Churchill Downs for an 11 a.m. news conference Wednesday.

Gary Stevens
Jockey Gary Stevens will ride the Bob Baffert-trained Point Given in this Saturday's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
"I got here at 10:35 and it took me about 10 minutes to gain access to the track, because I didn't have my pass," Stevens said. "Once that was accomplished, I wasn't allowed to walk through the paddock area.

"I told the guy who I was and what I was doing here, but he didn't care. That wasn't exactly how he said it, so I went back to my hotel."

Karl Schmitt, the track's senior vice president of communications, drove to pick up Stevens and bring him back. He finally started his news conference about an hour late.

"When it comes down to it, we're just one of the guys," Stevens said. "That's unfortunate, but that's the way it is Derby Week."

He'll have all the attention he wants Saturday.

Stevens will ride the Bob Baffert-trained favorite Point Given, seven months after ending a year-long hiatus from racing.

Arthritic knees forced him to retire in October 1999.

"I didn't realize what it was like to ride pain-free," said Stevens, who worked last year as an assistant trainer. "It got to a point where it got so uncomfortable, I wasn't enjoying what I was doing. I was thinking more about the pain than I was about riding the race."

But Baffert, who won the 1997 Derby with Stevens and Silver Charm, knew Stevens' return to the saddle was inevitable.

"He couldn't take it, it was killing him," Baffert said. "He couldn't stand seeing all those great horses winning without him. That's the kind of competitor he is."

He was right. Stevens decided to return last fall. He met with Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed Salman, head of the Thoroughbred Corp., which owns Point Given, and convinced him he could still win races.

Less than a month later, Stevens guided Point Given to a late-charging second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. After the race, Stevens labeled Point Given "my Derby horse," a declaration that cost him money.

"I probably should've kept my mouth shut," Stevens said. "Fortunately, everything has panned out. Anything can happen to these horses at any time. I could've easily been sitting here without a Derby horse."

Now, he might have the best one. Stevens has ridden Point Given in his last three races, all wins, including the impressive Santa Anita triumph that marked him as the horse to beat in the Derby.

"He gives me a feeling of power and confidence," Stevens said. "He's got a lot of different weapons in his arsenal."

Stevens has more questions about himself.

He'll have his 14th Derby mount Saturday, but to get ready, he's trimmed his race schedule and started taking two vitamin supplements a day to reduce swelling in his knees.

"I'm not healed," he said. "I'm able to ride and be very comfortable, but I can't ride seven horses five days a week anymore.

"Luckily, I've got people behind me who are top people. They understand the condition I have and they support that I'm picky about the rides I take. But as long as the good horses like Point Given keep coming, I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."