Gary Stevens needs no reminder of the dangers of horse racing — to horse and jockey. During his 27-year Hall-of-Fame career, the Treasure Valley native survived a number of horrific accidents. Even the ones jockeys walk away from take a toll.
And after 5,003 victories, including three Kentucky Derbys, Stevens was no longer willing to accept the inherent dangers.
"Jockeys don't wear seat belts. It is dangerous — that's one of the reasons I got out. The love that these athletes have for the sport outweighs the dangers that they put themselves in every single day they're out there," Stevens said.
"I wasn't willing to take that risk any longer. I loved riding in big races. I loved winning big races. But I wasn't ready to put my life at risk anymore."
In town for Gov. Jim Risch's proclamation of "Gary Stevens Week," the most famous alum of Les Bois Park found himself answering questions about the track's horrible accident on Saturday.
In the eighth and final race of the night, the lead horse Rawston apparently broke his ankle and crumpled to the track, leading to a five-horse accident. Rawston died on the track, and Regal Dr. Stuart was injured and later euthanized.
Jockey Reino Taveras, who was aboard Regal Dr. Stuart, remained in intensive care in serious condition Monday night, a Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center representative said. The representative would not disclose Taveras' exact injuries, but said he could be transferred out of intensive care today.
Steve Bieri, the owner of Capitol Racing which signed a five-year lease at Les Bois Park in October, said an inquiry had been opened into the incident. He said his company invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into improving the track's surface, the source of many complaints under previous ownership.
"It was a freak accident," Bieri said.
Stevens, who had viewed the tape of the incident, agreed with Bieri's assessment.
"It was an unfortunate situation. It's not easy to watch for the race fan and it's definitely not easy for the people that are putting on the show," said Stevens, whose parents have been involved in horse racing and horse training for several decades. "Whenever we had a horse injured or a fatal breakdown, it was like part of the family."
Stevens, who attended Capital High, was involved in a similar accident in 1986 at Santa Anita Race Track in California. Like Saturday's Les Bois Park accident, Stevens said there were seven horses in the race and five got caught up in the accident. Standout jockeys such as Laffit Pincay and Chris McCarron were badly injured in the crash.
"It just goes to show you that something like what happened here at Les Bois Park can happen on the big circuits with the best horses," said Stevens, who suffered only bruises in the accident. "They're hard to look at and hard to be a part of, too."
It was another nasty spill at Arlington Park in 2003 that began the end of Stevens' career. Though he continued to race until November 2005, Stevens cut down his number of mounts after being hospitalized for four days with a punctured lung.
In his earlier days, Stevens, 43, would ask, "When can I ride again?" even as he lay on the track. But age — and experience — had tempered that.
"When you're young you bounce back a lot easier. When you're 43, you know you're not going to bounce back and every fall takes a little longer to recover," he said.
And in this sport, there's simply no room for hesitancy. Just as NASCAR drivers can't be reluctant to stick the nose of their car into a tight spot, jockeys have to guide their horses into difficult positions in order to win.
"We're getting paid to stay close to the other horses, to get position. We're not counting one 1,000, two 1,000," Stevens said. "When the first horse goes down, it's like five o'clock traffic when you're driving home."
Stevens did that roughly 25,000 times in his illustrious career. He decided that was enough.