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Out of 'Luck,' Gary Stevens gets back in the saddle

Hall of Fame jockey started riding again after HBO series was canceled, and he finds himself riding the Preakness winner in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

June 07, 2013|By Chris Dufresne
  • Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens rides Oxbow to victory at the Preakness, on Saturday he'll race for the Belmont Stakes.
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens rides Oxbow to victory at the Preakness,… (Gene Sweeney, Jr. / McClatchy-Tribune )

The comeback of Gary Stevens was never intended for a real Triple Crown race aboard a horse named Oxbow.

No preconceived game plan put him in the winner's circle at the Preakness last month, much less on his way to Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

Stevens' comeback was supposed to be fictional, made for TV, on an HBO series called "Luck."

His redemption was coming through his portrayal of Ronnie Jenkins, the Jack Daniels-drinking jockey character executive producer David Milch based on Stevens, who retired in 2005 after a Hall of Fame career.

"He made it even darker than what I am," Stevens recently joked. "I think. I hope. Not much, maybe."

Stevens proved he could act a decade ago in the hit movie "Seabiscuit."

He didn't have to stretch much, though, to play Jenkins. "He had a lot of demons, a dark side to him," Stevens said of his character on HBO's horse racing drama. "I sort of became that guy."

Stevens was looking forward to Season 2. "He was going to a good place," he said of Jenkins, "a really good place."

But HBO abruptly canceled "Luck" last year after three horses died. Stevens, without Jenkins as a vehicle, was lost.

"Subconsciously, I felt there was unfinished business, for him and for me," Stevens said.

Stevens' only choice was to finish the story in real life.

His spiral after "Luck" reached the point where his wife, Angie, almost chased him back into the saddle.

It was one thing when her husband, rounding the turn toward age 50, hopped on his first mount in seven years in January.

Stevens stunned everyone, though, four months later when he rode Oxbow to a surprising Preakness upset over Kentucky Derby winner Orb.

Stevens became the oldest Preakness winner as he notched his ninth win in a Triple Crown race.

The undercurrent leading to the "pinch-me" part was Stevens' needing something to save him. He was depressed, drinking too much and couldn't find enough adrenaline fixes on a golf course.

"I felt like I was more for it than he was," Angie said of her husband's comeback. "I was living with a monster.... Not a monster. But he was miserable."

Stevens complained often to Angie that he still had the stuff to be a top jockey. He had won nearly 5,000 races, ridden Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup and Santa Anita Derby winners.

Angie finally said to him "Why are you sitting here talking about this?"

So Stevens quit talking.

The big issue was the surgically scarred right knee that impaired his riding ability and forced him into retirement. "I didn't feel the owners and fans were getting the Gary Stevens they get when he was at his best," he said. "It wasn't fair to them."

Jockeys take an enormous pounding. Some body parts last longer than others.

During a recent lunch at his favorite Sierra Madre pub, Stevens reviewed his medical chart. "Three scopes on the left knee," he said. "There are still six screws in my right wrist. Two shoulder reconstructions."

Right knee?

"Eleven surgeries: One major, 10 scopes."

Stevens rolled up his pant leg to reveal a clump of walnuts held together by a piece of medical tape — at least that's what it looked like.

"If I was a claiming horse, you wouldn't buy me," he said.

Angie thinks the knee looks more like "a big knob on a tree."

Anyway you viewed it, the knee was trashed.

"It's the one you ride higher in the irons," explained veteran jockey Mike Smith, one of Stevens' best friends. "It takes more pressure than the other."

Stevens never worked out in his prime. He just rode. The comeback required a full commitment to fitness. He hired a nutritionist and sports psychologist. A physical therapist in Seattle, Clark Masterson, worked with Stevens to strengthen the muscles around his right knee. He lost 25 pounds and 8% of his body fat.

It worked. He jumped back in the saddle early this year, in a $50,000 claiming race and finished third aboard a longshot named Jebrica.

After he retired to become an analyst for NBC and HRTV, Stevens says, he quit going in the jockey's room: "I didn't feel like I was one of them anymore."

Suddenly, as a rider again, he was back home in his inner sanctum, the place where he hid out during the depths of an earlier divorce. "I was back in my domain," he said. "I felt like I owned it again."

So then, of course, almost like a movie, longtime trainer and partner D. Wayne Lukas called to say he had a horse for Stevens to ride.

"I couldn't believe it," Stevens said. "I thought, 'Here we go again.' "

It was the Lukas team that, years ago, put a young jockey on a horse named Winning Colors.

"Let's ride the kid from Idaho," Lukas said of Stevens, born in Caldwell.

Winning Colors won the 1988 Kentucky Derby.

Lukas and Stevens, now on life's backstretch, are teamed up again.

The 77-year-old Lukas was down on his luck too, referred to by one prodder in the press as "Dead Duck Darnell," a reference to Lukas' first initial. Lukas had won 13 Triple Crown races, but this year's Preakness was his first win since 2000.

The horse Lukas had lined up was Oxbow.

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