UPDATE: No horses scratched out of the field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby when the 20-horse group was set Friday morning. Stevens needed one to scratch to get into the field as Royal Mo was the 21st-ranked qualifier. Stevens still will race at Churchill Downs on Saturday, riding Chief of Staff in a $500,000 stakes race about two hours before the derby.
In his long, storied career, Gary Stevens is in a spot that is completely new to him.
This is hardly the jockey’s first time at Louisville’s Churchill Downs, but all of the unknowns during those past trips – weather, the field, his mount – were different than this one.
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Stevens, a Treasure Valley native who cut his teeth at Les Bois Park, is waiting to see whether he will even get the chance to ride in his 23rd Kentucky Derby on Saturday. His horse, Royal Mo, is sitting 21st in the standings that determine who gets in the first leg of the Triple Crown. The field is 20. If no horses are scratched by 7 a.m. Friday, Stevens won’t have a shot at his fourth Derby win.
“It’s kind of bleak. I’ve never been in this position in a race like the Kentucky Derby, especially where I think I can win the thing,” Stevens said. “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. If not, my focus will be on the Preakness.” That second leg of the Triple Crown will be run on May 20 at Pimlico in Baltimore.
Though the waiting has been a challenge, the 54-year-old Stevens said he feels relaxed since it is all out of his hands. He spent a re-energizing few days last week visiting family in Idaho and even slept in his old bedroom. But there’s no doubt he wants another shot at the sport’s most prestigious race, especially since it might be his last.
“I won’t do it too much longer,” Stevens said. “It’s not fair to my family, to my children, grandchildren to keep putting them through this. This will probably be it unless I can find a 2-year-old I really like that I think can win it next year.”
Stevens said he had the opportunity to ride other horses in Saturday’s field, but “I don’t just want to ride, I want to win.” It’s something Stevens has done more than 5,000 times, including nine Triple Crown wins — three apiece in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. A fourth Derby win would tie him for second in history with the legendary Bill Shoemaker, who raced until he was 59.
If Royal Mo makes it, Stevens will be the eldest jockey in the field. After an eight-year retirement from 2005 to 2013, in part because of injuries, the jockey has not had an easy go of it. He had a full right knee replacement in 2014, and just last December had a right hip replacement. When he was a child, Stevens had Perthes disease, which restricted blood flow to the hip. He learned to ride a bike with his left leg only. Stevens returned to racing less than three months after the surgery and picked up a win his second day back.
“Some of the injuries I’ve had, it was a quick tape job and you keep going, but these are brand-new body parts,” Stevens said. “I wish the rest of me felt as good as my knee and my hip. I’d still much rather be on the racetrack trying to win than paying someone on a golf course to see me play poorly.”
Whether this proves to be Stevens’ final season or not, he has savored his comeback. He won the Preakness aboard Oxbow in 2013 and finished second at the 2015 Kentucky Derby riding Firing Line, who couldn’t catch eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
“They said, ‘He’s done,’ and I was like, ‘I’m not done,’ ” Stevens said. “I proved I could still compete at the highest level. Bo Jackson hit a home run his first game after a hip replacement, so I can’t see why I can’t win. I probably have done it because they said I couldn’t.”
Vitals: Post time 4:46 p.m. Saturday. Race 12 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (NBC)
1. Lookin At Lee
2. Thunder Snow
3. Fast and Accurate
5. Always Dreaming
6. State of Honor
11. Battle of Midway
13. J Boys Echo
14. Classic Empire
17. Irish War Cry
19. Practical Joke
AE. Royal Mo
AE. Master Plan