Retirement — if you can call it that for a man working at least two jobs — suits Gary Stevens much better the second time around. Gone are the feelings of emptiness and disappointment that surrounded the 43-year-old Caldwell native’s retirement from horse racing in 1999 when severe knee injuries became too painful for the three-time Kentucky Derby winner to bear.
Forced retirement is never easy, even for someone already enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame.
“I was a lost soul,” Stevens said Thursday from Maryland where he will work the Preakness Stakes on Saturday for NBC. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Predictably, retirement didn’t last long. Within a year, Stevens was back riding horses. After all, he’d been riding horses — and winning — since he guided Lil Star to a victory at Boise’s Les Bois Park when he was 16.
“I was forced into that (first retirement). It wasn’t my choice,” Stevens said.
He has seen what forced retirements have done to other great jockeys.
“Laffit Pincay didn’t get to quit on his own terms. Eddie Delahoussaye didn’t. I see their eyes well up when you talk about it. They wish they were still riding or at least that they could have walked out on their own terms,” Stevens said.
So the second time around, not only did Stevens return to racing and winning — he won the Preakness and Belmont in 2001 on Point Given — but he began planning. Planning for a future that did not involve climbing aboard a horse.
He became something of a star in 2003 for his role as jockey George Woolf in “Seabiscuit,” earning a spot on People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” list. On the set, he met his wife. He lined up television jobs for when his racing days were done. And this year, the first of his second retirement, a funny thing happened. Stevens, who also works as an analyst for TVG, the interactive horse racing network, attended the Kentucky Derby and didn’t miss racing.
“I don’t. I miss the competition a little bit sometimes, but I was surprised I made it through the Derby and now the Preakness without having funny feelings. I don’t feel like that. I’m very, very happy in the position that I’m in,” Stevens said.
“Every time I start to think I’m getting the itch a little bit, I remember my knee and the pain that I was in. I remember sweating on a 17-degree day because of the pain. Sometimes I wonder why I put up with it as long as I did.”
This retirement fits much better. He sifts through movie offers. He studies — perhaps as hard as he did in his racing days — for his analyst job.
“It’s not easy. It’s very, very similar to racing. I’m not putting my health on the line every day physically, but the preparation is very, very similar. I have to know all the players in every one of these big races,” he said.
“Whether you’re covering or riding, there are millions and millions of people watching you and nobody wants to screw up a race or screw up in the commentary booth.”
Stevens didn’t make many mistakes on the track and he’s equally smooth in the booth.
But what about actually doing "retirement" things?
Don't worry, Stevens said, he finds time for a near-daily golf game when he's home in Louisville, and he and his wife, Angie Athayde-Stevens, are planning a European trip this August.
And what about a return to his Treasure Valley roots, where much of Stevens' family still lives? What better way to celebrate the renewal of Les Bois than with Gary Stevens Day?
Stevens said he is interested, but has not been contacted by Capitol Racing, the new owners of Les Bois.
Here's a suggestion: Find a Saturday late in the season and bring Stevens home. Retire his silks, bronze a whip and hang them on the wall. Throw one heck of a retirement party.
This time, Stevens promises to enjoy it.