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Hovdey: Stevens at peace with sudden retirement

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

Barbara D. Livingston
Del Mar will pay tribute to retired jockey Gary Stevens on Saturday.

In late October of 2009 at Santa Anita Park, trainer Gary Stevens was saddling the 6-year-old mare Higher Incentive for a Saturday afternoon race with the help of valet Manny Avila. Without warning, the filly next door backed into the heavy wooden partition separating the stalls. The base gave way and the partition fell, briefly pinning Avila and spooking Higher Incentive, who shied into Stevens and banged him against the opposite barrier.

Avila was okay and Stevens suffered a minor head wound, prompting Gary to wonder if he needed to concentrate on a less-dangerous profession, like acting, or bomb disposal.

At the time, Stevens was in the midst of his second retirement as a Hall of Fame jockey. His first had come in late 1999, a direct result of chronic knee pain from a half-dozen surgeries over the course of his career. Ten months later he was back in the saddle and riding high on a colt named Point Given.

Stevens retired a second time in November of 2005 and commenced a peripatetic journey through an array of professions, including not only training and acting (in the HBO series “Luck”), but also as a racing analyst for NBC, TVG, and HRTV. He even tried his hand as jock’s agent in a short stint for the talented and sometimes tempestuous Corey Nakatani.

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The most recent un-retirement of Stevens, in January of 2013, came at the age of 49. Over the ensuing years, Gary won the Preakness on Oxbow, the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Mucho Macho Man, and two runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with champion Beholder. He also underwent replacement surgeries for both his right knee and left hip, moved back and forth more than once from California to the Midwest, and tried hard to cope with the fact that lately his services were no longer in a demand equal to his résumé.

None of that, however, stopped Stevens from showing up to ride horses like Friendly Steve in last Friday’s Del Mar nightcap, a one-mile main track event for $20,000 maiden claimers. Trained and partly owned by Blake Heap – familiar at home and abroad as Wesley Ward’s go-to guy – Friendly Steve gave Stevens an armchair tour of the course, gliding smoothly to the rail, rating kindly on the lead, and galloping home to win by 6 3/4 lengths to provide his rider with victory number 5,187.

“For me, that was icing on the cake,” Stevens said. “Winning with a $20,000 Cal-bred for a great horseman like Blake Heap. That’s kind of the way I started, and it was a fun way to go out.”

Of course, he didn’t know it at the time. Stevens awoke the next morning with two mounts Saturday afternoon. The first, a 2-year-old colt named Northwestern, was a handful in the post parade, treating his rider to a lurching pre-race ordeal that, in his words, “was like being rear-ended by a car six or seven times in 12 minutes.”

After the race Stevens felt a numbness in an arm and pain in his upper back. He toughed out his remaining mount, finishing third in the Bob Hope Stakes aboard Sparky Ville for trainer Jeff Bonde, then stayed home Sunday as a precaution before seeking a diagnosis.

By Tuesday the verdict was in: Stevens’s C-4 vertebrae had moved perilously close to the spinal cord. Dr. James Tibone, the orthopedic surgeon who has been repairing Gary’s damaged joints since the mid-1980s, took one look at the images and delivered the news.

“He said I was through, that I was about an eighth of an inch from being a quad,” Stevens said, using the shorthand slang for quadraplegic. “I guess it was fitting for the guy who helped keep me together all these years to be the one to pull the plug.

“I’m relieved. I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel anyway. So I’m at peace. And I’m walking away.”

Then again, we’ve heard this song before. Winning the jockey’s share of $258 million in purses has a way of whetting the appetite for more, no matter what the doctors say. And yet, Stevens suspected he finally had done enough.

“For the last five years, my mother hasn’t been able to watch any race I rode,” Stevens said. “In a lot of respects I was being selfish. I wasn’t being fair to my family, especially these two girls riding here in the car.”

Stevens was on his way back to Del Mar with his wife, Angie, and their 9-year-old daughter, Maddie. The racetrack has planned a special tribute for Stevens on Saturday, when the featured event will be the Grade 2 Seabiscuit Handicap. Stevens played Hall of Fame jockey George Woolf in the Oscar nominated movie “Seabiscuit.”

“Those other ‘retirements’ were just rehearsals,” Stevens said with a brave laugh. “This is the real thing, and we’re going to do it right.”

Having celebrated his 55th birthday last March, Stevens has tested time to the limits. He deserved to go out on his own terms, but even he admitted that was not the way Gary Stevens rolled.

“I guess I had to be told it was over,” he said. “So now I’ve got a lifetime suspension, and I’m proud that I never, ever appealed getting days. I’m not about to start now.”

(Next, a look back at the greatest hits of the Gary Stevens era.)

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)


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