The point of it all for Gary Stevens, from the grueling physical regimen to the emotional toll that comes with it, was not to be part of the scene again.
The reason the Hall of Fame jockey ended his seven-year retirement earlier this season is he honestly felt he could be as good or better as his heyday incarnation. And if he could play a vital role in a young horse’s development, all the better.
With three stakes wins under his belt since mid-January, Stevens is making good on his word to remain committed to quality. However, all of that could put his commitment to his other day job to the test come the first Saturday in May.
In his years away from the saddle, Stevens carved out a top reputation in the media as an analyst for TVG, and now for HRTV as well as NBC Sports. When he announced his comeback in January, Stevens said he was not giving up his roles with HRTV and NBC Sports, the latter of which broadcasts the Triple Crown races and several major Kentucky Derby preps.
Given the way things have played out, Stevens could be at Churchill Downs on May 4 with a Derby contender. The soon-to-be 50-year-old rides promising maiden winner Proud Strike in Saturday’s Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds and was also aboard Tiz the Truth when the Bob Baffert-trainee broke his maiden by 73/4 lengths at Santa Anita on Feb. 2 to put himself in the Derby trail mix.
During a national teleconference Tuesday, Stevens said he probably would have to decide whether he will be in the booth or in the saddle for Derby Day about a month before the race.
“To be focused on riding the Kentucky Derby and prepared to do a national, worldwide telecast would be impossible,” Stevens said. “You’ve got to do one or the other. And the decision will have to be made, I’m saying, at least a month before the Kentucky Derby.
“With the whole deal, I haven’t changed but if I actually think I’ve got a legitimate chance to win the Kentucky Derby, I’m going to be out on horseback and NBC will be riding with me,” Stevens continued. “We’re in a position right now where that opportunity is there. I don’t want to say yes or no, because it’s putting the cart in front of the horse, but I’m very optimistic and I’ve got the support of NBC whichever way the decision winds up. The horses at the end of the day will make the decision for me.”
With the knee pain that plagued him for much of his career currently at bay, Stevens has successfully reeducated the racing community to his superior ability. Last weekend, Stevens worked the front end to perfection aboard the mare Great Hot, lulling his foes to sleep before booting her home to victory in the Grade II Santa Maria Stakes at Santa Anita.
He is going to have his work cut out for him Saturday when he guides Proud Strike against a full field that features Remsen Stakes runner-up Normandy Invasion and Lecomte Stakes winner Oxbow. Still, that Stevens is taking the mount aboard the son of Smart Strike is an endorsement of the colt’s talents.
“I’ve ridden in enough Derbys that I don’t need to go out there for the scenery,” Stevens said. “I’d just as soon sit up in the booth and give a good perspective of the race, rather than going out there and saying, ‘OK, I’m just going to be an also-ran.’ It’s a pretty good seat I have up there.
“Saying that, I’m praying like nobody else that one of these colts — perhaps Proud Strike will be the one — gets me into the winner’s circle for a fourth time.”