BALTIMORE Nearly a quarter-century ago, Gary Stevens was an up-and-coming jockey in Southern California, hoping to make his mark on the sport, put a lot of money in the bank and move on to something else as quickly as possible.
A conversation with one of horse racings iconic riders still resonates with Stevens as he gets ready to ride Oxbow in Saturdays 138th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. Given where Stevens has been including retirement for seven years it seems almost humorous.
"I remember telling Bill Shoemaker when I was 26 years old that I was going to retire when I was 30, and he just laughed at me," Stevens said Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the lobby of the Baltimore hotel where he and his wife, Angie, are staying this week. "He asked me why, and I said, Im getting tired. I want to have a couple of million dollars in the bank and Ill call it quits.
"He said, Mark my words, you wont. What was Shoe when he quit, 62 or 63? He went another 10 years after Ferdinand. (Laffit) Pincay told me recently, If the doctors would let me, I would ride right now. Hes 63 or something and he looks like he could still ride."
Shoemaker was 54 when he rode Ferdinand to victory in the 1986 Kentucky Derby, and remains the oldest ever to win a Triple Crown race. It will take a lot for Stevens to do the same in the Preakness, though Oxbows performance for the first mile at Churchill Downs gives his 50-year-old Hall of Fame jockey and 77-year-old Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, some hope of stopping heavy favorite Orb.
That Stevens is even back in the saddle again is an even bigger upset.
After bad knees that had undergone 13 operations and other aching surgically repaired parts forced Stevens to quit in 2005, the eight-time Triple Crown race winner settled into a comfortable life with his second wife, Angie. They had a daughter nearly four years ago, adding to the four kids Stevens had in his first marriage. He became a respected racing analyst for HRTV and NBC.
But what gave Stevens the biggest rush one he admittedly missed after he stopped riding was acting.
Stevens played legendary jockey George Woolf in the 2002 hit movie "Seabiscuit" and was hired for the role of veteran jockey Ronnie Jenkins in the HBO series "Luck" in 2011. Though the preview was well-received and a second season was quickly signed, the show was abruptly canceled, reportedly after three horses died on the set.
"I had big plans; we all had big plans. I had a five-season contract with them and my role was growing," Stevens said. "It was a shock, a disappointment."
Stevens said playing opposite actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte "was almost like going into the jocks room. I was the new kid on the block."
Stevens compared the pressure of acting to that he has experienced in racing.
"It kind of gave me my adrenaline fix," Stevens said. "I do like that pressure. I say I dont put pressure on myself; I guess in a sense I do. The Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont, the Breeders Cup races, those are when you want to shine. When youre in front of a camera, thats when you want to shine as well. You dont want to be the reason for the failure of a scene and hear, Take one, take two, take three."
Angie Stevens, who met her future husband while working as a production assistant on "Seabiscuit," said he was happy playing a jockey on television but missed doing it for real.
"He wanted to be out there for years. I joke that he started thinking it the day he retired," Angie Stevens said. "He became really serious about it last year. He was constantly saying, I want to be riding, I feel like I can ride so much better than these guys. His family and myself told him, Go do it. You have the luxury to do it so why arent you?"
Fellow Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, who retired at age 47, said he wasnt totally surprised by Stevens comeback.
"Hes an incredibly competitive individual, and Im sure there were plenty of times when he was sitting on the set at HRTV or NBC and he was watching some rather poor rides out there, scratching his head and wondering, Man, if I was on that horse, I wouldnt have done that," McCarron said. "Thats the way Ive felt (working as an analyst)."
With the help of a fitness and nutrition program, and working with trainer Clark Masterson, Stevens went from a noticeably soft 140 pounds to a rock-hard 114.
"Everyone had commented when I quit how it was good to see me get some meat on me, but I didnt like the way I felt, I was so sluggish," Stevens said.
"There were some days toward the end when I was still riding when I had to go in the sauna and pull some weight off. Its a big load off, knowing that I dont have to beat myself up before I ride my races."
The results since Stevens returned have been mixed. Lukas was critical of Stevens ride in the Arkansas Derby when Oxbow finished fifth after being dead-last for much of the race. Before the Kentucky Derby, Lucas told reporters in Louisville that it was a performance Stevens, who has won nearly 5,000 races in his career, "wont be showing to his grandchildren."
Oxbows performance in the Kentucky Derby was a little more promising. Stalking speed horse Palace Malice, Oxbow was near the lead with a quarter-mile left but faded down the stretch to finish sixth. It prompted Lukas to say about Stevens this week at Pimlico, "Im very comfortable. Weve got karma together and weve had good luck doing this, and hes gotten to know the horse a little better throughout the last two weeks."
If Oxbow can pull off the upset, Stevens would become the oldest jockey ever to win the Preakness.
Not that he thinks about his age much.
"To me, 50 is the new 30," Stevens said.