After riding Mucho Macho Man on Saturday, jockey Gary Stevens will remove his racing silks, shower and shave, and don a monkey suit. It could turn out to be not only a banner day for the Hall of Fame thoroughbred rider, but also one that cements his comeback as one of the most remarkable in U.S. sports history.
The 50-year-old Stevens will ride 2-5 favorite Mucho Macho Man in Gulfstream Park’s Sunshine Millions Classic, after which he’ll find out whether he won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding jockey in 2013 — an achievement he would have considered unthinkable only a year ago.
That’s when Stevens ended his retirement from riding, a seven-year hiatus in which he dabbled in acting, tried his hand as a jockey’s agent, and provided racing commentary for NBC.
While plenty of athletes have emerged from retirement to compete again, few can match the success Stevens has enjoyed. Michael Jordan didn’t win another NBA championship or scoring title following his second comeback from the sport. Mario Lemieux failed to win a Stanley Cup ring or rule the ice the way he once had before returning from his retirement from hockey.
Stevens, however, has won — and won big.
He rode Oxbow to victory in the Preakness — middle jewel of the Triple Crown — and teamed with Mucho Macho Man to capture the nation’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He finished 12th in the country in mount earnings and is one of three finalists, along with Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario, for the riding Eclipse. He has defied the naysayers.
“I think there were plenty of people saying, ‘Why is he doing this?’ ” Stevens said of his decision to return to the saddle. “I guess, in their eyes, I had everything to lose and nothing to gain by it.”
In his prime, Stevens was as good as it got serving as navigation control on half-ton race horses.
He won eight Triple Crown races, including the Kentucky Derby on three different occasions with Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch and Silver Charm. He was the Eclipse champion jockey in 1998, a year after he was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. He was even a successful actor. He played jockey George Woolf in the hit movie Seabiscuit, and also had a regular part on HBO’s short-lived racing drama Luck.
But an assortment of painful injuries eventually caught up with him, and in 2007 he hung up his tack. His right knee was especially uncooperative when it came to providing him with proper support when he was standing in the irons.
In 2010, he was served another painful reminder about any comeback attempts when a horse collapsed beneath him and he sustained a broken collarbone.
“That’s it for me,” he told the Daily Racing Form. “No mas. It’s been a long time since I hurt like this, and it reminds me why I don’t do it for a living anymore. So I’m burning all my jockey stuff. The helmets, the flack jackets, everything — and put the ashes in urns and maybe sell them on eBay.”
Stevens never lit the match. His competitive juices wouldn’t allow it and on Jan. 3, 2013, he returned to competition.
“I would rather be out on the race track than be out on some golf course,” Stevens said. “I thrive on that, and I missed the pressure. That’s one of the reasons I came back.”
Stevens had to shed weight (he had ballooned to 140 pounds during his retirement) and get in riding shape. That meant dropping 25 pounds and spending mornings working himself into shape aboard horses. It also meant accepting the fact he could no longer ride seven or eight races a day. His balky knees would not allow it.
As such, Stevens has become much more selective about what he rides, and how often he rides. He is making an allowance Saturday when he rides in six races on Gulfstream’s stakes-packed Sunshine Millions card.
“That’s a big day for me,” Stevens said of Saturday’s work agenda at Gulfstream. “A normal day for me now is one, two or three mounts. I can’t do that on a regular basis anymore. If I was to ride six or seven a day, my right knee would just not hold up. I know how much it can take.”
If all goes well, Stevens will get Mucho Macho Man into the winner’s circle, along with the other five horses he’s riding. Even if Stevens doesn’t hear his name called when the Eclipse Awards are announced later in the day, he’ll still consider the year a resounding success.
“After riding a full year now in the comeback, I don’t feel like I was ever away,” Stevens said. “That seven years went by fast. Every day’s a blessing that I’m out there. Where it will end, I don’t know.”