by Johnny D
November 21, 2018
Yogi Berra famously explained, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” He’s right. And this time it’s over.
Tuesday, the fat lady sang. Suddenly, loudly.
And who can blame her for really belting it out? She’s been backstage rehearsing this particular song for more than a decade and a half. Nearly got to perform it in ‘99 and then again in ‘05. Each time, however, appearances were short-circuited. Cancelled. Plugs pulled.
This time, the spotlight was all hers. When she finished the curtain fell. All done. Finito.
At age 55, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens rides no more. The man who’s overcome knee and hip replacements and assorted other injuries to return to the saddle again and again finally is grounded; betrayed by a vertebra up against his spinal cord causing numbness in his arm and tingling in his hands.
I hate when that happens, don’t you?
“There won’t be any comeback from this one,” Jay Privman of DRF.com quoted Stevens as saying with a laugh.
It’s funny because, if you know Gary Stevens at all, you are certain that as soon as doctors informed him that this spinal injury could lead to a far more serious issue if he were to fall, the jockey immediately began weighing the odds of remaining in the saddle. “Simple,” one can imagine him explaining, baby blues flashing, “I just won’t fall.”
The sobering final 10-count came directly from Dr. James Tibone, according to Privman quoting Stevens, “Tibone didn’t mince any words. He said, ‘You’re done.’
And with that a glorious career abruptly ended. No Stevens’ last ride extravaganza. No cross-country farewell tour. No gallop once around the oval for old times’ sake. It’s a quick, heartfelt ‘farewell’ to one of the best ever to don silks.
It’s true, Tuesday, the fat lady sang. Suddenly. Loudly. But this tale has a happy ending. For the final time, Gary Stevens walked away from race-riding--‘walked’ being the operative word. Add another victory to his career win total. He beat the odds stacked against a man nearly 40 years in an occupation that demands an ambulance in constant close attendance.
In the spirit of the season, thanks to racing gods for Gary Stevens. He added youth, spice, talent, competitiveness and longevity to perhaps the greatest riding colony of all time that included Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Jr., Chris McCarron, Sandy Hawley, Eddie Delahoussaye and, later, Mike Smith and Kent Desormeaux –all Hall of Fame residents. I’ve spent my entire adult working life around racetrackers and horseplayers, including those mentioned above. I’m eternally grateful for that privilege.
Also, thank you for reading what’s in this space each week and Happy Thanksgiving to all Xpressbet account holders. When it comes to wagering on the races, you’ve got choices. Thanks for playing with Xpressbet!
Below is copy that appeared in this space soon after Stevens had returned to riding following hip replacement surgery--103 wins ago. Please, enjoy it again, for the last time.
Back in the Saddle Again…and Again
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Lynn Stevens won a race last Saturday at Santa Anita.
Big deal. He’d won 5,083 before that.
In a career that began in 1979, Stevens has won some of the world’s biggest races—Kentucky Derby (3), Preakness (3), Belmont (3), Dubai World Cup (1), Breeders Cup (11), Santa Anita Derby (9) Santa Anita Handicap (4), and more.
And, while he’s never won a Triple Crown, he’s famously ruined one. With history on the line, it was under Stevens’ relentless urging that Victory Gallop hung a heartbreaking nose upset on Real Quiet in the ’98 Belmont.
You get the gist. The guy’s been around…and around. Turning left and going in circles for years.
So why, at age 54, is he still throwing a leg over either side?
Maybe he needs the bread? Who knows? We don’t think that’s the reason. His mounts have earned over $250 million, so he should have a few sheckles saved…even if it’s by accident.
Plus, it’s not like the guy can’t do anything else to make a buck. He’s talented on the ground, too. He had a cushy analyst job with NBC Sports, covering all the big horse races. In many ways that seat was way better than the one he has now—it included a steady check and, if he ever happened to fall from his perch atop a swivel chair, he couldn’t get that hurt.
You might remember him acting in the movie Seabiscuit. He played “The Iceman,” George Woolf--a jockey. Not a stretch for him, one would imagine, and he did very well. So well, in fact, that he again was cast as a jockey in HBO’s ill-fated television series Luck. That time his character was an over-the-hill, mean-spirited, substance-abusing lout. Gary did well with that part, too.
You can’t say Gary Stevens doesn’t know when to quit because he’s retired so many times before.
What he doesn’t get is how not to come back.
At his age and station, mornings should include coffee, the sports section and walking the dog.
Not breezing one five-eighths in :59 and change.
Afternoons should be spent swinging a putter not a whip. Tying knots in golf shoe laces instead of in reins on horseback.
But, as they say, you can’t keep a good man down. And, when it comes to riding racehorses, not many have been better than Gary Stevens. Maybe none.
Know how they say, ‘You’re only as old as you feel?’ Well, six months ago Stevens felt prehistoric. Injections in his aching hip no longer worked.
And a jockey with a bum hip is as useless as a Ferrari minus a transmission.
He felt inadequate in the saddle. That he was cheating owners, trainers, horseplayers and, most importantly, himself.
Gary Stevens in the saddle at 75% probably still translates into a fairly competent jockey. But homey don’t play that game. Competence sucks. With this dude, it’s like Sinatra croons, “All or nothing at all.” Win or don’t play.
Friends warmly refer to Stevens as ‘Hick.’ That’s partly because he was born in Caldwell, ID, home of the Red Dog Saloon and Los Mariachis Caldwell restaurant--which you may know from its flagship operation in Boise. Or not.
It’s also because, even though Stevens has rubbed elbows with Hollywood types for decades, he’ll still gladly don Justins, jeans and a shiny, oversized, bull-riding championship belt buckle to feed the jukebox and shoot some pool in the nearest dive bar.
He possesses a rugged, stubborn streak sometimes associated with American cowboy characters dramatized in westerns. No way a band of hired guns would intimidate Gary Lynn Stevens into surrendering his spread to the railroad.
Like all great athletes, Stevens is confident and he believes…no, check that…he knows…that once he sets his mind he can accomplish anything.
It’s that unbreakable attitude that’s got him, to borrow a phrase, back in the saddle again…and again.
It’s what propelled him to return to riding in 2014 after total knee replacement surgery. And it’s what’s brought him back again after hip replacement surgery in December 2016.
Steve Austin, main character in The Six Million Dollar Man of ‘70s television fame, sported “bionic” implants in his right arm, both legs and left eye. No matter how many comebacks he makes Stevens will be hard-pressed to top that.
But, as the show’s popular opening catchphrase promised, "We can rebuild him; we have the technology."
With all that artillery, though, it’s doubtful he’d make riding weight.