By Mark Whicker
Last November at Santa Anita, Gary Stevens and Mike Smith became closer than even they realized.
Smith was riding Songbird, the brassy 3-year-old filly who had never come close to losing. Stevens was on Beholder, the 6-year-old champion, coming off two losses. From the top of the stretch to the wire, they ran in unison, as if each horse were the other’s sidecar. Beholder wound up winning the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff by a nostril, as a crowd of 45,673 marveled.
“To me it might as well have been a dead heat,” Smith says. “I couldn’t have been prouder of the way my horse ran.”
“I was going to try to intimidate Songbird a little bit, so we tried to get closer to her near the rail,” Stevens says. “Well, that didn’t bother Songbird a bit. Maybe if I had stayed farther away we would have won by more. I think that’s the greatest race I’ve ever been involved in.”
Stevens, 54, has won the “Triple Triple” Crown: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes three times apiece, and has 11 wins in Breeders’ Cup events. Smith, 53, has four Triple Crown race victories and an astonishing 25 Breeders’ Cup wins.
Smith, of New Mexico, and Stevens, an Idaho native, skipped no steps up the ladder of their profession. Their rivalry was illustrated in that Distaff. Their friendship shined through after.
“The next time I saw him after the race was over, he hugged me,” Stevens says. “He’s my best friend. He might as well be my brother.”
In 1998, Smith suffered two career-threatening falls. He broke a shoulder in March, and a month later broke two vertebrae and ended up in a body cast for six months. Now, five days a week, at 10 a.m., you’ll find Smith in an exercise room. Stevens calls him a “gym rat.”
“If you’re going to do it this long you have to put in the time,” Smith responds. “I do cardio and a lot of different things. I don’t feel right when I don’t do it. And I know that I couldn’t have come back from some of these injuries if I hadn’t been in that kind of shape.”
Although Smith is most famous for riding Zenyatta to 16 consecutive victories, he isn’t sure he has ever perched on a horse more talented than Arrogate. The day after Songbird and Beholder ran to the wire, Smith asked Arrogate for a desperate burst at the end of the Breeders’ Cup Classic to put away California Chrome. That was Smith’s fourth win in the Classic. Little wonder that he loves that particular autumn weekend, as chaotic as it might seem.
“The Triple Crown races are a big deal in America, but not so much in the world at large,” Smith says. “When you have a Breeders’ Cup, they come from everywhere, all over the world. It’s the best against the best in every category. You adjust to different horses, you run on different surfaces. It’s the most exciting time of year for me.”
But the Breeders’ Cup left Smith in tears seven years ago. He took Zenyatta on her final ride, in the Classic.
“I’ve been favored seven times in the Kentucky Derby and I never felt pressure like that,” Smith says. “It was her last race and she was undefeated. She sort of squeezed into the gate; it was dark and there were so many flashes, it looked like a rock concert. She just didn’t fire. Two more jumps and I was pulling her up. Then she settled down.”
Zenyatta almost came back to defeat Blame for what would have been her all-time victory. Jockeys have little time to brood or grieve, so Smith went back to work.
Are he and Stevens waiting for the other one to hang it up?
“I’m having too good a time,” he says, laughing. “I don’t see any reason either one of us shouldn’t keep going.”
Stevens has a bigger frame than Smith, so he has his own exercise program. He walks and does regular calisthenics.
“If I did what Mike did I might run into weight issues,” he says.
Again, none of it shields a jockey from occupational hazards most athletes can’t imagine. Stevens had a knee replacement in 2014 and a hip replacement in 2016. He was thrown into a rail early in his career and was in a coma for 16 hours. He was thrown again in 2013 and suffered a collapsed lung.
He has been an actor, a trainer, and a jockey agent, but all roads lead back to the starting gate. Stevens was the only jockey to ride in both the first and the 30th Breeders’ Cups. Even when he won last year’s Distaff and felt he’d reached the mountaintop, he wasn’t ready to retire. On Memorial Day weekend, Stevens rode Ashleyluvssugar to victory in the Charles Whittingham Stakes.
“You can ride 1,000 different horses and each one is different, each one has a quirk or a habit that you have to deal with before you can have success,” he says. “And if you think you’ve seen everything that can happen in this sport, you’ll eventually be surprised. I started doing this when I was 14 and now it’s 40 years later. I’m still learning. That, and the competition, keeps me coming back.”
Emotion hit Stevens after that last Distaff. He knew he wouldn’t be riding Beholder anymore. It was her 24th race, and the 22nd time she had placed first or second.
“She gave me absolutely everything today,” Stevens told the Orange County Register. “That’s why this is so emotional and bittersweet. I know I won’t be riding her anymore. I told myself I couldn’t let this one get away.”
The key is to ride your race like it’s your last. Smith and Stevens do that. One suspects they’ll take their final ride together.