By Hank Wesch
For the second time in its history, Del Mar has four current Hall of Fame riders in its jockey colony.
Gary Stevens is the linchpin, the connecting thread, the common denominator. And, as he will tell you, proudly so.
Stevens was elected to the National Thoroughbred Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in 1997. Upon gaining membership, he joined a trio of Del Mar regulars who had held that status for years. There was Laffit Pincay, Jr., a Hall of Fame member since 1975; Chris McCarron (Class of 1989), and Eddie Delahoussaye (1993).
Stevens was 34, McCarron 42, Delahoussaye 46, and Pincay 50 at the time.
Eventually, inevitably, the group was broken up by the retirements of McCarron in June of 2002, Delahoussaye in January of 2003 and Pincay three months later.
Stevens, himself, retired a couple of times. But unlike the others, he made comebacks, most recently in 2013 after a seven-year-absence. His presence during the Bing Crosby Season is part of another comeback, this one following having his left knee replaced just over three months ago.
With Stevens, 51, back in the fold, plus the return in the past months of prodigal sons Kent Desormeaux and Alex Solis, as well as the continued presence since 2001 of Mike Smith, Del Mar has another Hall of Fame quartet for fans to appreciate and bettors to consider. Smith was inducted into the Hall in 2003 and Desormeaux the following year, while Solis gained entry last summer.
“First, just let me say those are six guys that it’s an honor to be associated with,” Stevens offered when informed of the situation.”
Upon retirement, the first Hall of Fame trio that Stevens joined had accounted for 15 Triple Crown and 23 Breeders’ Cup victories. They rode a combined 121,938 races, won 23,055 of them and had total purse earnings of $696,991,470.
“I felt like I had something to uphold joining that group,” Stevens said. “I got elected to the Hall of Fame before I won my first Eclipse Award (1998), so I still had something to prove as well as something to uphold.”
Asked if there was a leader, or an “alpha” member in that group, Stevens tabbed Delahoussaye.
“Eddie was the guy that when he spoke, people listened,” Stevens said. “He didn’t speak out that often, or that loud. But when he did, Eddie was the guy that made sense and got a lot of respect.
“Every one of us, because we were in the Hall of Fame, I’d like to think were looked up to by the younger riders. Hopefully that’s the same (today). I don’t know if anyone will be looked up to more than any of the others. I am the oldest, and I know whenever some advice is needed on jockey health or other certain things, I have to be the bad guy, which means being the good guy for the jockeys’ cause.”
Stevens has gone from the junior member of the first Hall of Fame group to the senior (barely) of the present one. He’s 51, Solis is 50, Smith 49 and Desormeaux 44.
The second Hall of Fame trio that Stevens makes a foursome has a combined 11 Triple Crown series victories and 29 Breeders’ Cup wins. Smith is a heavy contributor in the latter category, being the all-time leader with 21 Breeders’ Cup victories. Entering racing this week, the Hall of Fame quartet had combined for 94,947 races ridden, 15,835 wins and $749,693,822 in purse earnings.
And counting, of course.
Stevens also is in the “and counting” category with 28,129 mounts, 4,988 wins and $236,986,922 in purse earnings according to Equibase statistics. He’s won nine Triple Crown races and finished first in Breeders’ Cup races 10 times.
Here’s Stevens’ quick takes on those Hall of Famers, past and present, all of whom, he emphasized, shared the trait of being fierce competitors:
Pincay — “The most powerful finisher I ever rode against.”
McCarron – “The best tactical rider I ever rode against.”
Delahoussaye — “Had it all.”
Smith — “Maybe the best of the best.”
Desormeaux — “Fearless and astute in racing situations.”
Solis — “A throwback to the old school, golden era.”
Desormeaux, who returned to riding at Del Mar regularly last summer after an eight-year absence, and Solis, back after four years on the East Coast, were up-and-comers on the Southern California circuit while the legendary career of Bill Shoemaker was winding down and those of Pincay, McCarron and Delahoussaye were flourishing.
“Kent, Alex and I were fortunate to be riding with the (Hall of Fame) guys — Eddie, Chris, Laffit and Shoe,” Stevens said. “They knew racing situations, they knew honor, they were guys you looked up to and learned from.”