Gary Stevens is a Hall of Fame jockey, and the great thing about Hall of Fame jockeys is that they don’t necessarily have to stop being jockeys. You can go away, and all the fans and horses are sad, and then BAM I’M 49 MY KNEES STILL WORK AND I’M RIDING THE 6TH AT SANTA ANITA.
No one in sport un-retires or non-retires more than jockeys. Thoroughbred racing is hardly a soft activity which nurtures and cushions its riders through careers spanning decades; of all the fuss made of violence in the NFL, ambulances do not trail quarterbacks down the field as they do jockeys on the track. And yet many begin in their early teens, then stay. And stay and stay and stay. Maybe it’s because they don’t know anything else. Mostly it’s because they don’t love anything else–not like this, anyway.
American Thoroughbred racing is shot through with individualism. It is a team sport in the sense that the Thoroughbred supplies the horsepower; the jockey provides the throttle, the steering, and the brakes. A jockey might wear the silks of four, five different owners in a day. He might ride one trainer’s horse in the Kentucky Derby and that of his closest competitor in the Preakness; mount up in Tampa in the winter and Cincinnati in the summer.
The jockey is in this way the last of our cowboys, responsible for and to himself and whoever he is working for at the moment. There is no inking a five-year contract with a signing bonus and performance option, then kicking back in the same two colors for as long as the body is gracious enough to hold together. Jockeys don’t get into a huddle with the other jockeys, bounce as a group, and wait for the captain to say “Hands in! Go on HORSES!” He decides when he begins and when he departs. The middle can be first-class tickets to Dubai or a shattered shoulder or a shattered marriage– or all. In many ways it is not a life for the easily bruised.
Stevens has several times acknowledged that he wears his heart on his sleeve, but what differentiates him from other elites of his generation, what has enabled his transition from the saddle to the silver screen, is his willingness to push back his silks and show the bruises. NBC recently filmed these Bluegrass visits to three champions currently living la dolce vita as stallions, carrying on cushier lives than any jockey ever did. Watch Stevens’ eyes and aspect as he introduces them: Smarty Jones, who he respects but did not ride, receives treats and a few moments of manly joking; Thunder Gulch, on whom Stevens won the Derby and the Belmont in 1995, is greeted with a gentle, brotherly hand on the neck; and Point Given… well.
Stevens himself holds Point Given’s lead as he calls him “the greatest horse never to win the Triple Crown” in 2001. It’s true; Monarchos beat him with a once-in-a-century stretch run after a once-in-a-century mad opening pace in that great gate stampede called the Kentucky Derby. What isn’t really true is that the loss was Stevens’ fault, as he seems to insist while the Preakness and Belmont winner nuzzles the grass at his feet. “Went a little too fast,” Stevens repeats softly, gripping Point Given’s mane, as he might have in the starting gate that day. “Went a little too fast.” He slaps the stallion’s neck, as though swatting at remorse.
This is not a man content to live in a draped posture– over the rail, over a race long ago lost, over anything.
When Stevens last left riding in 2005, it was two years after he co-starred in Seabiscuit, in which the jockey did a bang-up job of being a jockey– a coiled spring in conversation, a long, still back over the saddle. He was riding and acting, then acting and commentating, then commentating and sneaking back into the barn, and now riding and commentating. When your job is to go about 30 miles an hour on the back of an animal for two-minute spurts several times a day, no hammock swings fast enough.
As I began to write of Stevens’ firmhanded, no-nonsense commentary on other sites, he became so beloved by my readers that by mutual consent I began typing his name in all-caps and with an exclamation point, linked to the nearest available heroic full-color pose: GARY STEVENS! It seemed only proper, somehow– a typographic trumpet flourish for the long-scarred patriarch. Hardcore handicappers and Derby-only babies settled to watch Stevens age in place, assuming that place would be a well-sprung anchor’s chair. But in his official comeback announcement on HRTV, Stevens wore no tie, his Idaho accent was slightly more pronounced than it usually is behind a great spray of NBC roses, and his face was lean. The athlete was reporting for the interview.
On Sunday, the cameras clicked as he walked from the paddock, again as he legged up, and again as he returned from the finish line, in the money and all smiles. He says he will pick and choose his mounts, guided by experience and instinct and what feels good and what does not. A 49 year old can do that; an 18 year old cannot. By rights of dues and resume, he simply cannot. It is good to remember this, now and again.
I don’t know how long this will last. I don’t think Stevens does either. But for a while we have him as he was created to be– in the gate, over the neck, almost at the finish with a few strides yet to go.