Last January, when Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens launched his comeback after seven years in retirement, his daughter, Madison, wasn't happy. She was in the winner's circle at Santa Anita, crying, "I want my daddy."
Eight months later, the 4-year-old Madison was in the same winner's circle Saturday afternoon smiling and yelling, "Daddy!" after Stevens guided Mucho Macho Man and Beholder to convincing victories in a pair of $250,000, Grade I stakes.
"It's so crazy," said Stevens' wife, Angie. "She loves it now and cheers for him."
Stevens, 50, is back being a big-time player in thoroughbred racing. Mucho Macho Man's 41/4 -length triumph over Paynter in the 11/8 -mile Awesome Again Stakes makes the 5-year-old son of Macho Uno a leading challenger to Game On Dude for the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita. Mucho Macho Man finished second last year to Fort Larned.
"This horse only has to make up a neck from last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, and I think he's a bigger, stronger horse than he was last year," Stevens said.
Beholder, a 3-year-old filly facing older mares for the first time in the Zenyatta Stakes, cruised to a 11/4 -length victory over Authenticity, putting her and Stevens on a collision course to face Princess of Sylmar in the Distaff on Nov. 1.
Stevens won four races and finished second by a head in two other races Saturday.
"He's a great rider," trainer Richard Mandella said. "He always has been, especially since he took lessons."
Mandella put Stevens aboard Beholder for her last two races, and each one has been an easy victory.
"The filly is very special," Mandella said.
Stevens came close to winning four of the five Grade I stakes. In the Chandelier Stakes for 2-year-old fillies going 1 1/16 miles, 10-1 longshot Secret Compass and jockey Rosie Napravnik won a stretch-long duel over Stevens and She's A Tiger by a head. In the Rodeo Drive Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/4 miles on the turf, Tiz Flirtatious and jockey Julien Leparoux rallied to overtake Stevens and Marketing Mix by a head.
In the FrontRunner Stakes for 2-year-olds, the connections from 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another struck again. Bond Holder, a maiden son of Mineshaft owned by J. Paul Reddam, trained by Doug O'Neill and ridden by Mario Gutierrez, scored a 21/4 -length win over Dance With Fate at odds of 10-1. Bond Holder had been winless in four starts.