When Gary Stevens announced his retirement in 2005, no one could have guessed that a decade later he would be back in the saddle and riding at the highest level in the sport, but that’s exactly what’s happened. Stevens launched his comeback in 2013 and has won two Breeders’ Cup races and a Kentucky Derby since then, which has only added to the countless trophies on the Hall-of-Fame rider’s mantle.
Stevens got his start in his native Idaho, riding horses for his father at Les Bois Park in 1979. Stevens took his show on the road soon after, winning races at Portland Meadows and Longacres in the Pacific Northwest, and garnered a total of four riding titles at the two tracks.
Stevens relocated to Southern California in 1984 in pursuit of more purse money and prestige, and it wasn’t long before he was picking up major stakes wins on both turf and dirt at Santa Anita, Hollywood and Del Mar. Stevens forged a partnership with Hall-of-Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, and got his first Derby mount aboard Tank’s Prospect in 1985, where he finished seventh. However, Stevens and Lukas would team up again and this time they scored in the Kentucky Derby with the filly Winning Colors in 1988, Stevens’ first of three career wins in the race (the others came in 1995 and 1997 with Thunder Gulch and Silver Charm, respectively).
In addition to his three Kentucky Derby victories, Stevens notched two victories in the Preakness Stakes before 2005 (1997, 2001) and three in the Belmont Stakes (1995, 1998, 2001).
Stevens was still among the best in the game in 2005, winning 94 races and over $9 million in purses, but debilitating knee injuries swayed Stevens to hang up his riding boots, a decision that many thought was permanent.
Stevens became a racing analyst on television for a while, and even took on an acting role in the HBO series “Luck,” which came on the heels of his appearance as legendary rider George Woolf in the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit.”
But Stevens wasn’t entirely happy living life out of the saddle. “I’d much rather be out there on the racetrack,” he told Forbes in 2013. “I come home in a lot better mood than I do when I play golf.”
According to a 2013 CNN profile of the rider, Stevens “had to shed the equivalent of 10 bags of sugar off his body and get down to a racing weight of 114 lbs in a grueling two-month training regime.” Stevens said of the tough road back, “I didn’t want to come back and tarnish what I’d done in the past. I wanted to come back at a high level.”
And he certainly did, as just five months into his career resurrection Stevens piloted Oxbow to victory for D. Wayne Lukas in the Preakness, his third career win in the race. Later in 2013, Stevens won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff aboard Beholder, who is still as fearsome as ever in 2016, and finally captured his first Breeders’ Cup Classic with Mucho Macho Man.
The hard-working Stevens, now 53-years-old, is still a force to be reckoned with whenever he is out on the track.
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