Relief was clearly in the eyes of Gary Stevens Feb. 13 at Santa Anita Park.
Family and friends have been coming out to the California track every day he’s had a mount since his last win on Avanzare in the Arcadia Stakes (gr. IIT) Jan. 31, hoping they would catch his North American win No. 5,000. It was beginning to wear on the 51-year-old Hall of Fame jockey.
On his only mount Friday, the wait was over.
Stevens, aboard 4-5 favorite Catch a Flight, took over the lead in the stretch after trailing in fifth after a half mile. Catch a Flight held off hard-closing Sammy Mandeville by a neck to win a 1 1/8-mile allowance/optional claiming event.
Stevens, who also raced fulltime in England, France and Hong Kong during his career, reached 5,000 worldwide wins in 2005.
“The last two weeks have been tough,” Stevens said. “My family has been out here and all my friends. I was with (them) all last night and I said, ‘You better be here by 2:30 tomorrow afternoon,’ because I felt good about him today. I’m glad it’s over with and I can get back to business.”
A winner of three Kentucky Derbies, a record nine Santa Anita Derbies, four Santa Anita Handicaps and 10 Breeders’ Cup races, Stevens is considered one of Racing’s all-time greats. However his win Friday aboard 4-5 favorite Catch a Flight was not an easy one.
“It’s very special,” said Stevens, whose career has been marked by constant knee miseries. “The owners, the trainers have been nice enough to put me on all these good horses through the years. It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of fun and obviously, I love it or I wouldn’t be out there.”
Stevens took an extended trip back to the jockey’s room after the race, appeasing a procession of autograph seekers and hand shakers, and even took a few good-natured verbal barbs from his cohorts.
“I just threw him a bone,” Catch a Flight’s trainer, Richard Mandella said with a wink.
Tom Proctor, who trains Avanzare, also chimed in as Stevens entered the paddock.
“At least you figured out a way to win a photo,” Proctor exclaimed with a deep laugh, referencing Stevens’ tight loss to Dortmund in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 7 on Firing Line.
After all the handshakes and signatures, and even a few photo poses, Stevens couldn’t resist looking toward the future—for himself and the winning 5-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway. Both Mandella and Stevens were open to the possibility of an appearance in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 1 for the Argentina-bred Catch a Flight.
“(Working Catch a Flight) back in November, I looked down and said, ‘This might be our Big ‘Cap horse,'” Stevens said. “And you know how superstitious (Mandella) is. I think we’re all thinking along the same lines. We’ll see how he comes out of it, but this was a big improvement today. He’s a definite grade I-type horse.”