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Acting The Part

'Seabiscuit' role has Stevens planning for his next stage

October 22, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Maybe someday, the jock's room at Santa Anita will rival Schwab's Drug Store on Hollywood and Vine where, legend has it, Lana Turner was discovered and a star was born.

Jockey Gary Stevens looks upon the day he shook the hand of movie director Gary Ross in a noisy, sweaty, cacophonous room where jockeys go to meditate about the next winner, wail about the last loser and brutally critique themselves over the split-second chance they'd had to move a 1,000-pound animal through the sliver of light and space that passes for an opening as the day that changed his future.

For when Ross shook Stevens' hand and looked into his blue eyes, heard Stevens' warm voice and felt his passion for his sport, Ross made a momentous decision. He decided to make Gary Stevens a movie actor.

Stevens, a Hall of Fame jockey, will be riding as many as six horses in Saturday's Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita.

And at 8 p.m. Saturday, Stevens will be on a flight to London, where he will enthusiastically promote "Seabiscuit," the feel-good movie directed by Ross about a country's spontaneous love affair with a special horse and the story about the jockey who rode Seabiscuit.

This dual life of Hollywood glitter mixed with the sweat, dirt, blood and bruises of the racetrack suits the 40-year-old Stevens for the moment.

A week before the Breeders' Cup, Stevens was at home. His knees didn't ache too badly. His back didn't hurt much. All four of his kids -- Ashley, 20, whose fiance is in Iraq; T.C., 19, who works at Santa Anita in the television department; Riley, 14, "a skateboarder slash surfer," Stevens said; and Carlie, 11, a "budding actress," according to Stevens -- dashed about the house. So did four dogs. Cell phones rang with calls about parties and promotions and trips to Europe.

Stevens is grateful for the chance to ride Perfect Drift on Saturday, "one of the big favorites in the $4-million race," he said; and Musical Chimes, a filly; and Zavata, a sprinter; and most of all Storming Home, "the best turf horse I've ever ridden," Stevens said of the horse that nearly killed him.

On Aug. 16, Stevens felt himself dying.

He couldn't draw a breath, and he drifted into and out of consciousness during an ambulance ride.

His mount in the Arlington Million, Storming Home, mysteriously swerved, cutting in front of the rest of the thundering field a few yards from the finish line. Stevens was thrown from the saddle. One horse narrowly missed stamping on Stevens' head. Another's hoof clipped Stevens' chest.

Stevens was left with a punctured lung, which made catching his breath a scary and mostly futile exercise. He also had a broken vertebra, which made every other movement painful.

"I've had a lot of injuries," Stevens said. "I've had nine operations on my right knee, three on my left. I've had both shoulders reconstructed. But this was as close to death as I want to get without going all the way. I was ready to go. I figured this was it, man."

Stevens looked off into the distance as he spoke about Storming Home, about the horse's swift, unexpected move, about his feelings as he lay on the ground.

Stevens was sitting on the patio of his Sierra Madre home where, not so many months ago, he was practicing his lines for "Seabiscuit."

"I would be out here with my script and I'd see the neighbors out there and here I am, reading lines loud, saying the same line 10 different ways," he said. "The neighbors had to think I was nuts."

Stevens wasn't nuts. He was an actor.

"Gary wasn't self-conscious," Ross said. "Gary wasn't trying to be anything. In a lot of ways, Gary is an artistic soul. He's a complicated guy whose emotions are close to the surface. But he is also relaxed, and when he acted, Gary was very confident."

Stevens blinked. Now he sat on the patio thinking about horses to ride. Stevens is a jockey. But the phone would ring and it would be a movie publicist and he became an actor for the moment and for the future.

He was an actor because Ross had a feeling, had a sense, took a chance. He is an actor because he grabbed the chance with the same ferocity he had grabbed the reins of a horse when he was a 9-year-old growing up in Idaho.

"I didn't read anybody else for the part of George Woolf," Ross said. "I didn't look at anybody else. What I noticed in the few minutes when I first met Gary was that he had the charming swagger of a champion, and he looked like a matinee idol."

So just about a year ago, Stevens was beginning his work as an actor, stepping onto a movie set with young star Tobey Maguire, Academy Award nominee and future winner Chris Cooper, veteran Jeff Bridges and remarkable character actor William H. Macy.

Just about nine weeks ago, Stevens was falling head over heels off a horse and into intensive care.

And now Stevens will ride in horse racing's annual climax, then go to Europe and promote "Seabiscuit," then rest his aching, weary bones and think about what life holds in store.

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