Winner of the 2014 David Woods Award, this post-Preakness piece was published in the July 2013 Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred.
Jerry Bailey asked Gary Stevens the question Friday before the Preakness as the two Hall of Fame jockeys–one retired and one recently un-retired–met in the kitchen of the Pimlico jocks' room.
Stevens shook his head, shrugged, "Nothing's different. Just riding races."
Bailey shook his head, "What about the urgency?"
Stevens nodded his head, smirked, "Oh, there is no urgency. None."
A day later, the 50-year-old rode the Preakness Stakes-G1 without urgency, melting Oxbow from the gate, nursing him on the lead, ricocheting eight runners behind him like socks in a dryer and stealing an easy win in the second leg of the Triple Crown May 18. The Derby winner Orb sputtered from the rail, winding up a non-threatening fourth, derailing yet another Triple Crown bid in Baltimore. Two weeks of hype, two minutes of dismay.
Trained by D. Wayne Lukas and owned by Brad Kelley's Calumet Farm, Oxbow rebounded from finishing sixth in the Derby–reversing a 9¾-length drubbing by Orb–to win for the third time in his career. For Stevens, it was his third Preakness victory, ninth tally in a Triple Crown race–first since 2001. For Lukas, 77, it was his sixth Preakness triumph, 14th Triple Crown victory, first since 2000.
"They're all special because they were all with a different client. The key, if you're training horses, try to win one every once in a while for a new guy," Lukas said. "We've got a new guy in Brad Kelley at Calumet, and that is just the good economics of it. You give that guy that special moment to stand up there with his daughter and to know that he was watching at home and put Calumet, who we all know that name, back on the front pages of the racing publications is very special. I'm so happy for him just to have the opportunity to represent him."
Kelley, a self-made billionaire who made his fortune producing discount cigarettes, began racing horses under Bluegrass Hall in 2009. He bought the venerable Calumet Farm for $36 million in May 2012. Oxbow became the eighth Preakness winner for Calumet, the first under Kelley's stewardship.
Amid his own exploits, Calumet's legacy and Kelley's investment, Lukas knew what won the 2013 Preakness Stakes.
"We got a Hall of Fame ride," he said, after surpassing Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons for the most Triple Crown victories.
Inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 1997, Stevens retired in 2005. Citing knee pain–and realizing later it was simply burnout–the Idaho native tried endeavors like a teenager tries personalities. In no particular order, he trained horses, dabbled as a jock's agent, tried domestic life, drank too much, ate too much, starred in the short-lived HBO series Luck and did his best work as a racing analyst for HRTV and NBC. All the while, eight trunks of tack sat in his California garage, untouched but unmovable, the man in him saying he was finished, the jockey in him saying he wasn't.
After years of soul-searching and months of weight-shedding, Stevens returned to riding races in January. It didn't take long. "The racing hasn't changed. Not for me. I'm seeing things in slow motion again, which is great. It took awhile for that to come back and it's just coming back, but it's there," Stevens said in March. Business began to be there as well, perhaps not to the level of the glory days, but it returned. Saturday trainers Lukas, Tom Proctor and Richard Mandella, to name a few, began to believe.
Lukas called in January.
"He put me on my first Derby winner and he was one of the first to call this time," said Stevens, who guided the Lukas-trained Winning Colors to win his first Derby in 1988. "He called and said 'I have a colt for you. His name is Oxbow.' And here we are."
It took awhile. Bred in Kentucky by Richard Santulli's Colts Neck Stable, the gray son of Awesome Again enticed Eddie Kane to bid $250,000 for Kelley's Bluegrass Hall at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2011. Consigned by Burleson Farms, Oxbow is out of Tizamazing, an unraced full-sister to two-time Horse of the Year Tiznow, $2.8 million earner Budroyale and stakes winners Tizdubai and Tizbud. Pedigree? At the time of his purchase, Oxbow's pedigree page didn't reach the third dam.
Lukas unveiled Oxbow, a full-brother to stakes winner Awesome Patriot, for his career debut at Saratoga. Sent off at 22-1, he raced awkwardly, lost contact with his six rivals and jockey Junior Alvarado pulled him up. Two months later, he faded to finish fourth in a 7-furlong maiden at Keeneland. Thirteen days later, he tired again, finishing third at Churchill Downs. He graduated at Churchill in his fourth start, failed to threaten in his stakes debut in the CashCall Futurity-G1 in December. In January, with Jon Court aboard, he broke out with an 11-length win in the LeComte Stakes-G3 before finishing fourth in the Risen Star-G2, both at Fair Grounds. Shipped west, he finished second to stablemate Will Take Charge–beaten a head–in the Rebel-G2 at Oaklawn Park for Mike Smith.
Kelley likes his horses to race and Lukas likes to race his horses. In April, Stevens became Oxbow's seventh jockey. Rating from an outside post in the Arkansas Derby-G1, they finished fifth. Stevens stuck with him for the Kentucky Derby-G1 (he didn't have a lot of choices) where they showed tenacity at least, beating 13 rivals but were no match to the Shug McGaughey-trained Orb.
Undeterred, Lukas did what he's done throughout his career, lined up and took another swing, aiming Oxbow, Will Take Charge and Titletown Five at the Preakness. As Lukas says, if you want a guy who's going to play zone, he's not your man. He kept Oxbow in full-court press and went into the Preakness full of confidence.
"I thought he had the best day of the spring (Friday). The gallop boy that gallops him all the time was on him and I said that is the best he ever looked," Lukas said. "He just seemed like he was in the zone, relaxed, got over the track. He can get aggressive in the morning. He's not an easy horse to train at all. He's so aggressive. You think you're doing too much every single day with him, but the good ones sometimes do that."
Five days before the Preakness, Stevens breezed Oxbow at Churchill Downs, going an easy half mile, galloping out five-eighths. It was routine, nothing exciting, but Stevens felt the headstrong colt relax and listen to his cues, taking a deep breath for the first time in months. If he could offer those options again, Stevens felt like the Preakness was possible, at least.
"Look, I'm not saying he's going to beat the other horse," Stevens said about Orb, the day before the Preakness. "But, I can tell you, that was his best work, by far. We didn't want anything fast, but I got him to the pole better and he waited for me. That's huge."
Breaking from stall 6 in the field of nine, Oxbow bumped with Will Take Charge from his outside before Stevens nudged for a couple of strides, clearing Departing and Titletown Five and matching strides with Goldencents. As they went past the wire, Stevens checked over his left shoulder to see what Keven Krigger was doing on Goldencents. Krigger abstained, Stevens pounced, nudging again, allowing Oxbow to stroll to the lead, about four lanes off the rail.
After a deep breath and a quarter-mile in 23.94 seconds, Oxbow led Goldencents by 2 lengths, Titletown Five and Itsmyluckyday found comfortable spots in third and fourth as Orb tracked in fifth, just 5 lengths off the lead, compared to the 20-length gap he relished in the Derby two weeks earlier. Straightening down the backstretch, Joel Rosario angled Orb off the deep rail and into a clear lane, outside Titletown Five, as Stevens doled out another easy split and Oxbow took another deep breath, going a half-mile in 48.60. Applying just enough pressure to the reins for support rather than restraint, Stevens rocked atop Oxbow's withers as Rosario tried to maneuver for a clear run down the backside.
When you're the Derby winner, from the rail, in a short field, behind a slow pace, it's not your moves, it's the countermoves. "They'll be looking for me, it'll be different this time," Rosario said before the Preakness. It was. As Rosario slid between Titletown Five and Itsmyluckyday, Julien Leparoux asked for a lead change on Titletown Five and urged him past Orb. Ranging to within 2 lengths of Oxbow, suddenly Orb was in traffic, in trouble. Oxbow strolled the first three-quarters of a mile in 1:13.26. The dog had been walked. Goldencents tracked to his outside, Itsmyluckyday stalked, clear in third. Titletown Five ran interference from the rail. Departing and Govenor Charlie stacked up on the outside. Mylute began to swell from the back. Orb was out of his orb, reeling from third to seventh as Oxbow re-broke on the front end.
For Stevens, the hard part–getting Oxbow to relax–was over. Now, for the easy part, taking advantage of the havoc he had wreaked. Just breezing a horse, a sharp three-eighths, get him light on his feet, squeeze him into the bridle, punch him to his right lead and enjoy the ride. Whether a jockey is 20 or 50, that's natural.
Still well off the rail, Oxbow eased past the three-eighths pole, Stevens still motionless, like he was counting sheep in Oxbow's ear. Nearing the quarter pole, Stevens sensed the low bridge, crouching lower and asking for separation. Oxbow jumped into the bridle, spurting clear, clearer as he opened up on Itsmyluckyday and Mylute who had separated from Orb, Departing and the laborers. Into the stretch, Stevens threw a cross, turned his whip over and urged Oxbow with 18 right-handed flicks–his elbow fluttering like a pennant in the breeze, just like old times. Oxbow stayed true to the task, winning by 1¾-lengths over Itsmyluckyday and Mylute. Orb passed tired horses to be a non-threatening fourth. Oxbow finished 1 3/16 miles in 1:57.54.
Stevens rose in his irons, a stride before the wire and then popped up and punched the air, once, twice, three times. Comeback complete. The hard work, the doubt, the demons slipping away as Oxbow legitimized a boy's desire to be a man, a man's desire to be a boy. Winners win. Riders ride.
"This is why I came back," Stevens said, moments after winning his third Preakness.
This is why he left the comfort of home, the normalcy of mid-life, the steadiness of a Friday paycheck to be a recluse at a fitness center near Seattle, Wash. Stevens made the decision to come back last September, and began walking five miles a day. After working his television job at the Breeders' Cup in November, he moved to Pegasus Training Center near Seattle. Best known for its connection to champion Blind Luck, Pegasus is an equine rehabilitation and training center owned by preeminent heart surgeon Dr. Mark DeDomenico. Stevens used the 100-acre farm as a base for his return–living in a guest house on the property, getting fit in rigorous workouts he compared to boot camp and, eventually, getting on horses again far from the glare of Santa Anita or another racetrack.
"The toughest part of the comeback was when we got all the logistics worked out and I left, five days after the Breeders' Cup and went up to Seattle," Stevens said. "I had prepared myself, both mentally and physically, but I got up there and it was hardcore."
This is why he stopped drinking alcohol. Stevens has long been the guy who sits down with friends after the races–to catch up, talk shop, laugh, tell stories, relax and unwind–over a beer. Those days are over, or at least, on hold.
"I was drinking entirely way too much. Too much time on my hands. I couldn't see myself going into a rehab, blaming other people, sitting around," Stevens said. "The cool thing about the diet I went through, it was mandatory that you don't drink, the diet wouldn't work with any alcohol at all. I'm not on any bandwagon or anything else, but I'm not going to do what I had done in the past. I'm not 25 years old, even 35 years old. Yeah, you can function, but do you want to function at the highest level or do you just want to function? I want to function at a high level."
This is why he hired a nutritionist, a physical trainer, a sports psychologist; this is why he threw up in a trashcan.
"I had gone through one set of the workout, my trainer said go get a drink of water. I said 'I don't want a drink of water.' He said, 'I'm telling you to go get a drink of water.' I said, 'I'm going to puke if I drink any water.' He said, 'I said go get a drink of water, there's a trashcan next to it.' I went over and got a drink of water and puked in the trashcan. I guess when I was over there, he told my friend, 'I can't get this guy to holler uncle, but I've made him puke twice.' It was two months of that. I appreciate that stuff, I love that stuff."
This is why he risked his reputation. Sure, his wife Angie supported his decision, old friends Mike Smith and Mike Puhich rallied and long-retired comrades like Laffit Pincay Jr. and Eddie Delahoussaye told him they would do it if they could, but those are friends, Stevens risked public embarrassment, public failure.
"There are critics. In this game, you have to have a thick skin," Stevens said. "I think everybody was skeptical when I came back until they all saw how serious I was taking it. Even in this jocks' room, you're not friends with everybody, you put up with people because you have to, it's a small room here. It's a small room in every jocks' room in the world."
This is why he tested himself.
"I'm not going to BS you, I felt that pressure when I came back," Stevens said. "You know when you come back from an injury, you feel like you've got to prove yourself all over again, no matter what, you always came back with a bit of pressure, 'Hey, I've got to show them that I'm not hurting, I'm still game, I'll go through those holes and ride my race and do what I did when I was a kid.' It was no different this time around, maybe more so, because I'm in the Hall of Fame and people are saying, 'What is this guy doing? Why is he coming back?' I put a lot of pressure on myself for this comeback."
This is why he stirred his demons.
"Deep down inside I was lying to myself," Stevens said. "I told everybody, including myself, 'I'm done. I'm done.' I had all this tack, I told my wife, 'No, you can't get rid of that. No, you can't get rid of that.' In the back of my mind, I was saying, 'You never know. Never say never.' Now, I'm a free spirit, taking advantage of what's being offered."
The weeks leading up to the Derby and the Preakness tried Stevens. After moving his tack to Keeneland for the spring meet (he won three races, a decent showing for the competitive stand), Stevens transferred to Churchill Downs where things slowed. Mounts were scarce, winners were non-existent. Oxbow trained poorly, worked aggressively, Stevens looked like a man doing what he had to do, not what he loved to do. Comebacks are touchy. Questioning comebacks is worse.
Oxbow managed to run well in the Derby, securing an inside spot, moving through on the rail to reach the front before giving way late. In the seven years Stevens sat in a television booth instead of a saddle, he missed that moment when the race is in the balance, when anything's possible. It's irreplaceable. At the least, Oxbow provided it, for a moment, in the Derby.
"I had a great run, a great position. I secured a great spot on the rail, he was relishing the muddy track, he was loving it down there," Stevens said. "I'll tell you what, approaching the quarter pole, I had an inside spot, I got through, I had a big smile on my face, saying 'I'm going to win this thing again.' As soon as we turned in the stretch, I was immediately attacked, but I'll tell you what, this colt, he's all fight, he never chucked it in, just kept plugging away."
Two weeks later, the over-achieving colt kept plugging to win the Preakness, giving Stevens his first Triple Crown victory since Point Given's Belmont Stakes in 2001 and snapping Orb's two-week joy ride. In the two minutes of the Kentucky Derby, Orb justified the life's work for McGaughey, owners Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable. The sport's ultimate purists, they ventured to Churchill Downs with a horse they believed belonged and he dominated 18 rivals. Everything fell into place. Two weeks later, nothing fell into place as Stevens played puppet master in a race that so often slays the Derby choreographer. Once again, the Preakness played the toll booth, the money went in but the arm didn't raise. Everything that felt so right, suddenly went so wrong as Orb failed to elicit even a moment of expectation in a surreal running of the race.
As Stevens and Lukas explained their career reclamations in a press conference in the infield, McGaughey stood along the outside rail, answering questions, his wonderment the same as everybody else's, maybe it was the rail, maybe Orb had a bad day, maybe something will show up later, maybe it wasn't meant to be.
Finally, reporters released him and McGaughey began to walk back to the Pimlico stakes barn. A fan yelled his name and tepidly held out a red Sharpie and a baseball hat with Orb emblazoned on the front. McGaughey stopped, took the pen and scribbled his name across the bill. Another fan lifted a straw hat off his head and handed it to McGaughey, he signed that. Another fan leaned and handed McGaughey a white Polo baseball hat, he signed that. Each time, his scrawl became more scribble than signature. McGaughey checked for any other requests, put the cap back on the pen and clicked it shut.
McGaughey turned and began the long, lonely walk along the outside rail to go see Orb, the vanquished Derby winner.
"I don't know what happened, he just got down there where he wasn't comfortable..." McGaughey said. "I'll wake up tomorrow and I'll be fine. I'm disappointed, but I'll be fine. We know the game, we've been disappointed before."
McGaughey was disappointed–two weeks of euphoria over. Stevens was delighted–seven years of exile over.
/Sean Clancy, July 2013 Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred.