Gary Stevens returns to the saddle Sunday at Santa Anita
By Steve Andersen
ARCADIA, Calif. – Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens is making a comeback at Santa Anita on Sunday, seven years after he retired from riding and two months after he resumed working horses.
Stevens, 49, has been named to ride Jebrica in a $50,000 claimer on turf in Sunday’s sixth race. It is his only mount of the day and is the start of a comeback that Stevens said Thursday he has been contemplating since late last year.
Stevens made the announcement on HRTV late Thursday morning at its studio at Santa Anita. Stevens has worked for HRTV as a commentator in recent years, as an analyst for NBC in its coverage of the Triple Crown races, and was an actor in the short-lived HBO television series “Luck,” which aired in 2012. He also played the role of George Woolf in the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit.”
He emphasized Thursday that he plans to continue his television commitments as he returns to riding.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” he said in an interview with Daily Racing Form after his television announcement.
“I’m not looking to ride seven a day. I’m not looking to be leading rider. I’m looking to ride good horses with good futures. My plan is to help advance their careers.”
Stevens retired in November 2005 with 4,888 career wins, including three wins in the Kentucky Derby. He has been working horses at Santa Anita in recent weeks and was active Thursday morning.
Stevens began taking steps toward a comeback in November, when he approached Thoroughbred owner Mark Dedomenico, a heart doctor in Washington. Dedomenico advised Stevens on a weight-loss program, a personal trainer, a nutritionist, and a sports psychologist.
Stevens said he changed his diet and spent two weeks doing extensive workouts before he began to exercise horses at the Pegasus Training Center in Washington.
“I wanted to be fit enough to get on horses,” he said. “I knew if I did get on horses, they’d be good horses. I didn’t feel comfortable enough if the horse was strong, or pulled. I wanted it to be safe for the horse and the other riders.”
In addition, he said that he has given up alcohol – for personal reasons and to ensure fitness.
“It’s never been a secret that I like my share of beers,” he said.
“It’s been going on since I was 18 years old. I’d get out of the shower [after racing] and have a beer.”
Since early November, his weight has dropped from 132 to 119 pounds, he said.
“I’ve gone through a life-altering experience in the last eight weeks,” Stevens said.
Stevens continued to exercise horses when he returned to Southern California in December. He said on HRTV that one key moment occurred as he worked the English stakes winner Strong Suit in December and felt the sort of enthusiasm he enjoyed in his racing career.
“When he broke off, it was like Rock Hard Ten, Point Given, or Silver Charm,” Stevens said, referring to three of the leading horses of his career. “I had missed that feeling – the strength, the power, and the speed underneath you.
“I said, ‘You’re fit. You really should do this.’ ”
When Stevens retired, he spoke often about the toll riding took on his body, specifically his knees. He said he felt no discomfort in Washington or more recently.
“I was getting on yearlings that are 2-year-olds now,” he said. “The strength is there.”
He was on the phone with a colleague from NBC shortly after the HRTV announcement, discussing plans to continue working with them.
“If I ride a prep race, I won’t ride the Kentucky Derby,” he said.
“You can be a pinch-hitter in many good races.”
Considered one of the more popular riders in Southern California in recent decades, Stevens could add to a career that includes nine wins in the Santa Anita Derby and eight wins in Breeders’ Cup races.
“I don’t know how this will turn out,” he said. “But I’m excited about Sunday.”