From November 17, 2014
Comebacks have always been one of the most exciting aspects of sports. They defy the odds and accomplish what we think can’t happen. Sports have been generous to us with comebacks. It’s one of the reasons we watch, it helps us understand, and even in our personal lives, maintain that never give up attitude we all really need.
Comebacks have taught us other things as well. We, along with the television networks, learned to never change the channel as we watched “The Heidi Game” unfold. Nobody could have ever imagined the Oakland Raiders would overcome a 9 point deficit to beat the New York Jets in the last minute of the game. They scored two touchdowns in that historic final minute. The problem was not many saw it. At 7pm sharp NBC changed from the game, thinking it was hopelessly over, to the movie Heidi. We would have to check history but maybe my favorite one liner of all time, Yogi Berra, had not yet uttered “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Can we ever forget the Babe Ruth cursed Boston Red Sox overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series to beat the New York Yankees 4 games to 3 and advance to The World Series? How about when the Buffalo Bills overcame an insurmountable lead of 35-3 by the Houston Oilers to win in overtime 41-38 in a game now known simply as “The Comeback”.
On a more intimate and personal level, boxing has provided us with some of the most memorable and dramatic toe to toe comebacks in sports. Julio César Chavez knocking out Meldrick Taylor in the last seconds of the last round in their championship bout comes to mind. Chavez had been pretty much dominated by Taylor’s speed and crafty pugilist skills but kept chipping away until it paid off with a TKO in the last seconds. People who saw Jose Luis Castillo knock down Diego Corrales twice in the 10th round of their first epic bout still don’t believe Corrales got up off the canvas and beat him in what is affectionately called “The Round”. How can we not mention all-time great Muhammad Ali and his governmentally imposed three year hiatus from boxing, forcing him to relinquish the heavyweight title, which he won back after being reinstated? Ali declared himself “The Greatest of all Time”, I’d love to ask him where he ranks Gary as a rider today.
All of these comebacks are remarkable and special in their own ways, as are many others. There is one; however, that when you look at all the elements of a truly great comeback, just says “Hey, I just may be the best one ever”.
We all know the Sport of Kings does not receive the national attention from the sporting world it deserves. That is a sad but true fact. It wasn’t always that way. There was a time, not all that long ago, when our game was covered by all the major newspapers and news networks on a daily basis. A time when our grandstands were full and racing news was indeed mainstream national news. Had Gary Stevens’ comeback occurred during that time, it would have been headline news and deservedly so.
Thoroughbred Racing has a history with as much, if not more, longevity than most other sports. As such, we have our share of achievements, both equine and human. None on the human side can compare to Gary’s comeback to which he added an exclamation point in the way of an encore.
They say 50 is the new 40. I say “they” are wrong more than right and Gary Stevens helped prove that. Gary showed the world 50 is the new 30, or at least it can be if you can muster the heart and will that he was able to. Oh yeah, you’ll need an enormous amount of athletic talent and ability as well.
Back in 2005, Gary was riding with a significant amount of pain from his worn knee that was pretty close to bone against bone. When I asked him to categorize the pain using one of those hospital sad face charts going from 1-5 progressively, he did not hesitate to say 10. Considering how tough jockeys are, we can translate that to, it hurt. Nonetheless, Gary soldiered on in large part to a special horse he was riding then named Rock Hard Ten. Rock Hard Ten was always a nice horse, but when he competed in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes he had not come around to his full potential. He had a large muscular fame to fill out and it was not until a little later in his career that he really started to blossom. Gary knew how good he could be and knew the plan for the colt. Gary expected to win his first Breeders’ Cup Classic on him, which was significant as it was about the only major race that had somehow eluded his magnificent career. It was for sure the only major race in his own country that to that point, had escaped his grasp. He wanted to win it, and was willing to fight the pain and continue the constant nursing of the knee to do so. He also expected to win another Dubai World Cup on him. He had enough confidence in the colt to hang on for those two huge races.
Race horses have been changing the plans of people in The Sport of Kings since the very beginning in one way or another. As fate would have it, Rock Hard Ten would not provide Gary that first Breeders’ Cup Classic win. Not because he wasn’t good enough, he was, but because he was injured just days before the race, prompting his retirement from racing. As we in the game know, there are a million ways to lose a race, scratching two days out due to injury is just one of them.
At that point there was really nothing left for Gary to accomplish in his Hall of Fame career. He had reached the pinnacle of the Sport and then some, and had stayed there for quite some time. His resume read like a history lesson on the biggest races and best horses in the world. Races like The Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, Preakness, Belmont, Travers, Haskell, Pacific Classic, Santa Anita Handicap, Dubai World Cup, Arlington Million, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Japan Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Canadian International, Hardwicke Stakes and countless others, many more than once. It didn’t matter which coast, or where in the country, or the world for that matter, Gary Stevens had established himself as a go to, big money rider on the biggest stages the Sport of Kings had to offer. Although the Breeders’ Cup Classic had somehow escaped his grasp, not many other Breeders’ Cup races did. Gary recorded victories in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Mile and Distaff prior to his retiring in 2005 and again most of them more than once. He rode favorites and longshots both and, if you were averse to tearing up tickets, you always had to pay attention to who he was on in a big race.
He had built his reputation and resume aboard all types of horses, cheaper horses, stakes horses, speed horses, and closers. It didn’t matter. Gary was a master craftsman in the saddle and was also known as a cerebral jockey who handicapped the races and went in with a game plan, but could also adapt depending on how things unfolded. He put his horses in the right place to win, and if they had it, he brought it out. His biggest asset in the irons back then may have been he didn’t have a weak point, he was good at everything. Along the road, Gary became one with some of the greatest horseflesh to ever look through a bridle. Horses like Point Given, Serena’s Song, Royal Anthem, Silverbulletday, Silver Charm, Singspiel, Da Hoss, Rock Hard Ten, Thunder Gulch and so many others.
And then you had those priceless history making moments, like winning The Kentucky Derby aboard the great filly Winning Colors, or denying a Triple Crown to Real Quiet by winning The Belmont on Victory Gallop by the thickness of a sheet of paper. Or stealing The Breeders’ Cup Distaff aboard One Dreamer at huge odds. Those are the immeasurable, intangible moments that help define greatness in an athletic career. Moments like when Storming Holme spooked at the finish of The Arlington Million and unseated Gary who was run over by two horses. They were disqualified and Gary sustained injuries to his shoulder, chest, and back. They reunited just six weeks later to take The Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes together at Santa Anita Park. You don’t do things like that without picking up a few awards along the way. Awards like The Eclipse for Outstanding Jockey in 1998, The George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1996, and the Mike Venezia Memorial Award in 1999.
So with his last and best shot to win The Breeders’ Cup Classic, Rock Hard Ten, not running, Gary decided to stop fighting and nursing the knee pain and announce his retirement.
When you talk horses with Gary Stevens two things jump right out at you. First is, he knows the game, and I mean really knows the game, every aspect of it. He knows it like people know the backs of their hands and his memory of races and details is uncanny. Second, he is a fierce competitor with an enormous amount of passion and respect for the sport he loves and what he does. His desire to be at the top of his craft is as strong as any young rider clawing their way up the ladder.
When I spoke with Gary, I started at the end, which was actually the beginning of what is likely the greatest comeback in sports:
PTW: You retired with one of the best and most accomplished resumes in racing, going back to that time in 2005 did you think you might return?
GS: No, no I didn’t actually.
PTW: While retired and working around the game, did the fire still burn to ride?
GS: Well I thought I was over it. About 5 years into it, the thoughts started dancing around in my head. If I waited too long people just accept it and move on. I had never really had a boss before and then I had a bunch of bosses who were telling me what to do and where to be. I decided to get fit again and see where it led. To see if I could get to a fitness level that would allow me to come back and if the knee would hold up.
PTW: Were there any races or horses you watched that played any role in your wanting to return?
GS: What Mike Smith had been accomplishing since my retirement had more to do with it than anything. The way he was managing his career, what he was focusing on, and the types of races he was riding in. That’s what got the fire burning more than anything. His victory on Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and winning The Ladies Classic on her the year before. When he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic on her at Santa Anita I was standing right there with my son. Watching her in defeat to Blame at Churchill Downs, that race put as much fire into me as anything.
PTW: Seven years is an unprecedented amount of time to be away from professional sports on any level, let alone where you left off. Were there doubters and did you have any self-doubt?
GS: I didn’t have any self-doubt once I started working out horses. I spent some time in Washington. I spent a month on an exercise and diet regimen before I got back on horses. When I got on my first horse, I felt great and didn’t have any self-doubt. But, yeah, everybody was questioning what I was doing and why I was doing it. My old buddies Richard Mandela and Tom Proctor stepped up to the plate and were not shy about putting me on good horses. And, it just kind of snowballed from there.
PTW: Were there any setbacks or anything that caused second thoughts?
GS: Well, you know, the knee had been a problem way back in 2005 and was the reason for the retirement. I had knee problems going back to 1985. It hadn’t been right since the initial injury. I worked around it and doctored it and did what I needed to do to get by. And, it was the same thing when I came back. I was constantly doctoring it, icing it and stretching it. All the riding and all the other things that caused the knee to flare up caused a constant problem. I was able to manage it. I had the problems right up to this past July when I had the full knee replacement, but I knew that day was coming. So, not even to get into this comeback, but this is like a whole new can of worms right now. Everybody looks at me like the car with that tiny little spare tire and I get a lot of ‘how’s the knee, is the knee ok’, must be 50 times a day. It’s like I have to prove myself all over just like the first time. But, once you start winning, the questions stop.
PTW: Once you realized you would ride again, what, if anything, was your goal?
GS: I wanted to win big races. My goals didn’t change. I wanted to win that one big race I hadn’t won, The Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was a big dream to fulfill. For it to actually happen last year was the most incredible thing in my career. It was my biggest achievement. That was my goal. To get to the point where I was riding those kinds of horses. I wanted it, but I didn’t expect it, I’ll tell you that.
PTW: What went through your mind when Slim Shady crossed the wire first giving you that first Stakes win in the Comeback?
GS: Yes, for Simon Callahan. That started it all and showed I was still a big money rider. It showed I still had the skills to pull things off that people didn’t expect. That victory that day felt as good as the Breeders’ Cup Classic did, to me. Even my first win back aboard Branded, for Tom Proctor, was a great moment. They were all important and were propelling me on to more and bigger wins. That led to picking up Mucho Macho Man and even Beholder when Garrett Gomez went absent. Getting my hands on a filly like that was pretty incredible.
PTW: It looked to me like you learned a lot about Oxbow but also taught him a lot riding him in Arkansas, was that correct?
GS: Pretty good observation. We drew a wide post in the Arkansas Derby and it looked to me like I was going to wind up 6 or 7 wide going into the first turn. I hate to test a horse out in a million dollar race, but he already had enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby. I was aware of it. He didn’t have to win that day. I thought I would win. I had told Wayne (Lukas) I was going to be patient with him and take him further back than usual. It was, basically, a throw out race. He wanted to come out running from the gate that day. I worked him again before the Kentucky Derby and it was only a so-so breeze. The race he ran in the Kentucky Derby, I had him forwardly placed. And, at the end, he was the only horse who had been up on the pace that was still around at the finish. With all the speed in there, with horses like Goldencents, he had every right to cave at the quarter pole. But he didn’t, he kept fighting. He gave me everything he had and he galloped out nicely. I learned how tough he was that day. As far as how good he was, I came back and breezed him a week before the Preakness. It was a light’s out work. He worked incredibly and I told my agent and my wife that I was going to win the Preakness.
PTW: At what point in the Preakness did you start smiling knowing you were going to be awfully tough to beat?
GS:Past the wire, the first time. Very reminiscent of when I won the Kentucky Derby on Winning Colors in 1988. I knew passing the finish line the first time, that I was just cruising. No one was going to press me, and I could do what I wanted as far as pace went. When I turned into the backstretch, it was done.
PTW: Knowing how bad you wanted to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, when you were heading to the gate on Mucho Macho Man, was that the most pressure you ever felt going into a big one?
GS:No. Not when they warm up like he did. He was doing everything physically in the warm up. It was picture perfect. He was alert but not getting heated up or anything. That’s when, as a quarterback or a pilot, you’re most confident. When you know what you’re sitting on, and they show up. I felt the same as the previous afternoon on Beholder. There was no question in my mind, unless something freaky happened in the race, or someone ran the race of their lifetime, I didn’t think I could get beat. In the Classic, Will Take Charge, gave us a scare in the final strides, but my horse had given me every signal. From the time the gate opened, I was where I wanted to be. It was one of those times here you map out a race in your head, and it goes exactly like that and you don’t have to go to Plan B. I was prepared for other scenarios if they developed, but they didn’t.
Nobody can ever say Gary did not pay his dues. He applies his craft and makes his way in one of the toughest and most competitive athletic arenas there is. There are no contracts nor guarantees. You have to continually perform with no off days, and no slumps allowed. Winning is truly everything. Sports teams can go long periods without winning and their players can still play. A jockey who doesn’t win doesn’t ride. Not only does he fight Father Time, but also all the young guns looking to make their reputation in the jockeys’ room. This makes Gary’s comeback and achievement all the more historical.
Thoroughbred racing has given the sports world some of the most difficult records and streaks to break. Some of them never will be broken. While someone may hit more home runs someday, or throw for more touchdowns, no trainer will ever win five Belmont Stakes in a row like Woody Stephens did. No jockey will ever come off the bench after seven years and win The Preakness, a classic race, along with The Breeders’ Cup Distaff and The Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was a once in a lifetime moment in sports.
One of the things racing can do better is glorify its heroes. Not just our equine ones but our rider athletes. They are also stars of our game and should be promoted as such. The Eclipse Voters can help. If I had a vote, it surely would have gone to Gary Stevens for the most outstanding jockey in 2013. How could it not with an accomplishment like he had. All too often the voters vote for whichever rider or trainer has the most money won. In 2013 they completely undermined the phrase “Outstanding Jockey” and missed the boat entirely. Every year someone has the most money won, that doesn’t automatically equate to outstanding when we have a major athletic accomplishment in our own backyard. Maybe, if we set the example, mainstream sports would notice.
We all know after The Breeders’ Cup, Gary continued riding in top form and getting the top horses he had earned. He was even riding Bayern, this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, earlier in the year before he could take the pain no more and finally had the knee replaced. He held out until he felt he could no longer perform at his best but not a day too long to where he compromised any horse’s chance. After all, he made a career of helping them win. Not many know after the Classic, Gary went to Japan and Hong Kong to ride in a competition and the knee flared up badly. He had to have it drained and injected to ride. The scary part is, now Gary has the knee of a 28 year old like a lot of the jocks he is competing against. That should make for an interesting encore to the comeback. That, along with the footnote he made it back to the saddle in just over three months. He said he wasn’t sure he’d be back. Who believed it?
We talked about what could make a great rider even better than ever after such a lengthy absence. In addition to movie and television parts, as well as racing manager and trainer, Gary worked as an analyst during his time out of the irons. He watched races from a different perspective and watched all riders. He had always been his own biggest critic but now he was studying everyone and everything and dissecting it all. It improved him. He left the game in 2005 riding great, returned even better, and now the encore begins.
Although the Del Mar condition book was out before anyone really knew when Gary would be back, he is getting on the types of horses that tell him things should go well. Possibly really well. Racing is a game of past performances and Gary’s tell us it would be foolish to bet against him. After all, just three months after a full knee replacement, Gary made it back in time for this year’s Breeders’ Cup. He rode in two races which was quite a feat in itself considering the timing. I’m looking forward to next year.
And tough they were. Gary Stevens and Mucho Macho Man had just enough fight, and gas in the tank, to pull off the most remarkable comeback in the history of The Sport of Kings and arguably all of sports.
You can follow Jonathan Stettin on Twitter @jonathanstettin and Pastthewire.com @pastthewire