Last year's Kentucky Derby story revolved around 25-year-old jockey Mario Gutierrez and his victory first time up in horse racing's biggest event.
This year's storyline could feature a jockey twice his age who had his first Derby ride before Gutierrez was even born.
It's still uncertain whether Gary Stevens will be in the starting gate of Derby 139, but what a comeback it would be if Stevens wore the roses at age 50.
“I'd say it's nothing short of remarkable,” Stevens' agent, John Perrotta, said of the possibility.
Stevens' announcement in early January that he would come out of retirement after seven years away from riding was met with a mixture of cheers and skepticism. Could he withstand the rigors of the game at age 49? Could he still compete at a high level? Would he just be considered a novelty?
“I knew that I was going to be under the microscope,” said Stevens. “You're always under the microscope in this sport regardless of what you've done the day before, let alone seven years prior to. And, you know, I had thought about this through midway last summer and I had a plan that I put in place and tried to execute it and really didn't know how things were going to turn out, what the expectation was going to be.”
Stevens' plan included whipping himself into top shape and spending several weeks with a trainer and nutritionist, shedding pounds and building up strength and endurance. He talked to jockey legends Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, and Laffit Pincay. He sought advice from his older brother, Scott, who's still riding at Turf Paradise.
“He said, 'Man, if you're feeling it… what else are you going to do?'” Stevens recalled. “I wanted people to know that I was serious about this comeback and if I couldn't be a shadow of what I once was then… that wasn't good enough. I wanted to come back, if not as good, better than I was the last five years that I rode.”
Stevens said the final years before his 2005 retirement were painful ones physically, exacerbated by a fall at Arlington Park in 2003.
“That pain takes a toll on you and you tend to think a little clearer when you're not dealing with the pain,” Stevens said. “And, fortunately, right now I feel better than I did the last five years I was riding when I was active before.”
Is he feeling good enough to pursue the dream of a fourth Kentucky Derby victory? Stevens, who turns 50 on March 6, said that all depends on whether he lands a horse with a good chance of winning. In last Saturday's Risen Star Stakes won by 135-1 longshot Ive Struck a Nerve, Stevens finished eighth of 12 aboard Proud Strike, a colt trained by Steve Asmussen. But Stevens and agent John Perrotta know other opportunities might present themselves on the Derby trail. After a string of frustrating second-place finishes to kick off his comeback, Perrotta said Stevens is “in the zone” and could be a go-to rider as the Derby season progresses.
“Now that they have this point system, it's really hard to figure out at this point,” said Perrotta. “A horse you like right now might be 5-1, but he could be 100-1 to make it to the gate.”
Stevens recalled winning the 1995 Santa Anita Derby on Larry the Legend, a colt he thought would become the Kentucky Derby favorite.
“He wound up getting hurt and never raced again,” Stevens said. “I wind up picking up Thunder Gulch and winning the Derby anyway. So, you learn to keep all your options open leading into the first Saturday in May.”
Stevens said he'll likely decide about a month before the May 4 Derby whether he'll prepare to ride or tackle the preparations of his other job as an NBC broadcaster. Stevens said the network is supportive in either case, and if he does choose to ride, an on-board camera might provide NBC viewers a unique perspective on Stevens' return to the Derby field.
“If I can go out on that racetrack and know that I have a legitimate shot of winning, I've ridden in enough derbies,” Stevens said. “I don't need to go out there for the scenery. I just as soon set up the booth and give a good perspective of the races rather than going out there and saying, “Okay, I'm just going to be an also-run. It's a pretty good seat that I have up there and saying that, I'm training like nobody else.”
Perrotta said if anyone can join the likes of Bill Shoemaker in winning the Derby at 50 or older, it's Stevens.
“He's a remarkable rider,” Perrotta said. “I've never studied him like I do now. He and Mike Smith (age 47), they're just instinctively better than a lot of riders.”
A start in the Derby would be the second opportunity for Perrotta to realize his own Derby Dreams. In his first foray as jockey's agent, Perrotta secured the mount on Double Sonic, who finished 11th in the 1981 Derby won by Pleasant Colony. Since then, he's had various jobs in the racing industry, including a writing stint with the HBO series, Luck, in which Stevens had an acting role. Now, Perrotta could have another shot at Derby glory.
“It's a real treasure,” Perrotta said. “In a sense, it's something I'd never thought I'd do again. I said I'd never be an agent for anybody but Gary Stevens. It's just a privilege to be with him and do what I can for him.”
Perrotta and Stevens might not be on this journey if Luck hadn't been cancelled. Stevens said the show made him feel like he was back in the game, “riding races,” and when it was over, he felt like something was missing.
That's when he started thinking about a real comeback.
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