A few minutes before the fourth race on Saturday's program, Del Mar will honor Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.
On Tuesday, Stevens, 55, announced the end of a nearly 40-year career after an MRI exam on Monday showed a vertebra pressing upon his spinal cord, making continued riding too much of a risk regarding debilitating or catastrophic injury.
Here are the thoughts of three fellow Hall of Famers – jockeys Chris McCarron and Mike Smith and trainer Richard Mandella – on Stevens. McCarron was at Del Mar Friday to pay his respects, but had to return to Kentucky. He did so with a souvenir, one of Stevens' whips that, McCarron said, is destined for a trophy case with one of his own.
McCARRON – “We were friendly rivals. Obviously, tempers can flair a little bit and they probably did a few times over the years. But that's not unfriendliness, that's just being competitive.
“I'll never forget, Gary had been in Southern California only a short while and we were in the last race of a day together. We went head-to-head from the eighth pole to the wire, and I beat him a nose. He looked over to me as we stood up and said 'I just found out why you're the leading rider'
“Gary was an outstanding race rider and could ride any kind of horse under any conditions. But I think his forte was nursing one on the lead, stealing away, and having everybody come back with egg on their face because we allowed him to open up an insurmountable lead and then just hang on. He did that so many times.
Stevens came back from injuries that forced long layoffs twice and quickly notched major wins that reestablished his status among the most elite riders.
“I wasn't surprised,” McCarron said. “Not knowing Gary. He's incredibly competitive and I'm sure sitting on the sideline and watching other riders win big races, that he knew he could be out there winning, was the motivation that drove him back. Winning a big race is what we jockeys live for, and that's what he came back for. I knew he'd pull it off. He's too competitive not to.
“His retirement is not bittersweet for me. I'm glad he's retired. It's time to hang it up and do something else. He'll be good at whatever it might be. He's good at everything he does.”
MANDELLA – “I had a great relationship with him through the years. We had an understanding of what we were both looking for and he's obviously one of the great riders of all time.”
An example was how Mandella and Stevens worked together with the multiple Eclipse-winning mare Beholder. The late Garrett Gomez was aboard for her first nine starts before Stevens took over for Del Mar's Torrey Pines Stakes on September 1, 2013 and stayed there through the completion of her career. That encompassed 13 graded stakes victories, the finale being a nose win over Songbird in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita.
“(Gomez) wanted to always take her to the front, and I never trained her that way,” Mandella said. “I don't tell guys exactly what to do, but I kept hinting that he shouldn't be afraid to take her back off the pace, but he didn't.
“Gary got on her and there was a real comfort level with him. That turned her into a giant. She'd been pretty good up to that point, but he was a big part of turning her into the champion she became.”
SMITH – “Being selfish, I hate to see him retire and I know I'm going to miss being around him on and off the track. On the track, he always helped me up my game. Off it, he's not only an idol but like an older brother, almost a father figure to me. I'm happy, for his sake, that he's retiring. I'm going to miss him, but I know he ain't going anywhere.
“There are so many memories, but certainly a big one is Songbird-Beholder (2016 Distaff). That was a great battle and he beat me a nose. We were both out of air and couldn't say anything galloping out past the wire. But like I said then, if I had to get beat by somebody, I'm glad it was him.
“It was a race where even though you get beat, you go away feeling happy because the way those horses ran their hearts out, there really was two winners.”
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