From Idaho to infinity
by Grant Clark
n September 20, 2003, Gary Lynn Stevens was
inducted into the inaugural class of the Washington Thoroughbred Racing Hall of
Fame. While countless other notable riders, including National Hall of Fame
jockeys Ralph Neves, Johnny Adams, Albert Johnson and Russell Baze, have also
used the Pacific northwest as a stepping stone into racing elite, Stevens is
the local rider that went on to the greatest national fame.
An incredibly talented rider and fierce competitor,
Stevens has won more than 4,800 races during his illustrious 25-year career,
including eight Triple Crown races and eight Breeders Cup races, and is
arguably the worlds top jockey of the past quarter century.
Along Came a Horseman
March 6, 1963, in Caldwell, Idaho, Stevens was the youngest of Ron and Barbara
Stevens three sons. Like many jockeys, Stevens was around horses from day
one, as his father trained Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.
Horses were a part our life, said Stevens
during an interview with Lenny Shulman for the book Ride of Their Lives: The
Triumphs and Turmoil of Todays Top Jockeys. They were always
there, right outside. Wed walk to the garage, grab a bridle and a saddle,
and go for a ride. Instead of riding bicycles, we rode horses. But I never
cared about them until I galloped my first racehorse. My brother Scott had
started to ride professionally, and I saw the money he was making and the
enjoyment he was getting out of it, and I figured Id like to try that. He
talked my dad into letting me get up on a racehorse. That was it. I was hooked.
The power was incredible. At age twelve I knew thats what I wanted to
Stevens riding future, however,
was put in jeopardy at age seven when he was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes
Syndrome, a degenerative disease, which debilitates the hip socket joint.
Required to wear a metal brace on his right leg for 19
months, Stevens was told the likelihood of him being able to compete
athletically was bleak, as was the chance of him walking without pain for the
rest of his life. Yet, prior to turning 14, Stevens was already winning Quarter
Horse races at the bush tracks and fairs within his home state.
Older brother, Scott, a leading rider at Turf Paradise
and one-time member of the Longacres jockey colony, had moved on to riding
Thoroughbreds and it wasnt long before Gary made the transition as well.
A mere month and a half after turning 16, Stevens
rode in his first career Thoroughbred race, winning aboard Little Star, a horse
conditioned by his father, on April 21, 1979, at Les Bois Park.
But riding wasnt the only thing Stevens excelled
at. An accomplished wrestler in high school, he received several scholarship
offers to wrestle at the collegiate level.
Wrestling, and school for that matter, was not in his
future as he dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to pursue a career as
a jockey, and with his parents consent, he accepted an offer to
apprentice for southern California trainer Chuck Taliaferro. Taliaferro had a
history of developing young riders. His prior protégés included
Steve Cauthen and Cash Asmussen. Stevens turned out to be a star pupil.
Maybe I was naïve, Stevens said during
his 1997 induction into the National Racing Hall of Fame. And maybe I
wouldnt have done as good had I known just how tough the business is. But
I had no fear that I wasnt going to succeed. I had no idea on what level
Id be successful, but I knew I wasnt going to fail.
Southern California, Take One
From a numbers standpoint, Stevens first attempt
at riding on the tough southern California circuit didnt go as planned.
He finished his first stint a dreadful four-for-90.
Although many would view his initial voyage to the
Golden State a failure it was quite the contrary. It was during this
time that Stevens evolution into one of the sports premier riders
While Stevens was saddled aboard also-rans
and longshots, he watched and studied his fellow jockeys greats like
Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Jr. and Darrel McHargue. He picked the three
best jockeys he saw and attempted to combine their style into one
Shoemaker for his hands and finesse, Pincay for his strength and McHargue for
the way he looked atop a horse.
It was these three
riding styles that Stevens merged together to call his own and while he only
lasted four months in Los Angeles, he would later call these the greatest four
months of his career.
I saw those guys down
there ride and saw who I had to emulate. I got the experience of working with
the top horses and top horsemen, and riding with the best jockeys in the
Stevens returned to Idaho a different
rider and quickly applied his newly acquired knowledge and experience, riding
10 to 12 races a day in Boise.
The following year,
he moved his tack to the Pacific coast winning the first of two straight
riding titles at Portland Meadows during the 1981-82 season. His next stop
would be Longacres.
Longacres Glory Years
burst onto the local scene in 1982, winning 95 races and finishing third in the
jockey standings during his first season at Longacres. He placed in 13 stakes
races and picked up his first stakes victory aboard Mr. Free Spirit in the 1982
Washington Stallion Stakes. In addition, Stevens registered a season-best 10
consecutive days with at least one win.
year, Stevens earned top riding accolades, when he captured his first ever
Longacres riding title with a then-record 168 wins surpassing the
previous seasons record high of 154 victories set by fellow Washington
Hall of Fame member Gary Baze.
Stevens won his
first Longacres riding title in style, winning five races from eight starts the
afternoon he broke Bazes record. That same season he also became the
first jockey in track history to ride over 1,000 mounts in a single season,
compiling a 16.5 win percentage. He rode a season-high nine stakes winners in
1983, including four with state champion three-year-old Prairie Breaker and had
a season high 13 consecutive days with at least one win.
Those statistics, however, pale by comparison to what
Stevens did for an encore in 1984. It was during that year that he began his
trek towards racing super stardom when he annihilated every riding record in
Longacres track history en route to his second straight Longacres riding crown.
To say Stevens dominated the 1984 season would be
a gross understatement. At the age of 21, he broke the record of 168 season
victories he had established in 1983 by an astounding 64 victories, and
finished 148 wins in front of second-place finisher Gary Baze.
He tallied his first stakes win that season aboard the
Eugene Zeren-trained Dyanzastar in the Seafair Queen Stakes 14
additional stakes triumphs, including victories aboard Sharper One, Lady of
Rainier, Prairie Breaker and Got You Runnin, followed as he finished with a
track-record 15 stakes wins bettering the previous track high of 13 set
by Jack Leonard in 1969 and hit the board in 29 of 34 stakes races ran
that year at Longacres.
In only four years of
local competition, Stevens finished fifth all time in stakes wins at the Renton
racetrack and ended his Longacres career with 524 wins.
After moving his tack back to southern California,
Stevens frequently returned to Renton to ride. None was more memorable than his
return on September 22, 1992, when he came back to ride all 11 races on the
final Longacres card, winning the 60-year-old tracks last race aboard
Idaho-bred, Native Rustler.
always be an important part of me, said Stevens, who set a Longacres
track record in 1984 by winning at least one race in 31 consecutive days.
It was there that I became a jockey and I will always have a special
place in my heart for the racing up there.
The Return of the Jedi (Rider)
When Stevens returned to California in late 1984 he
wasnt the same rider local racing fans had remembered far from it.
He was no longer the teenage apprentice trying to absorb everything he could by
watching the top riders. He was there to win races.
And thats exactly what he did. Stevens won on 15
percent of his mounts his first year back in southern California and won an
impressive 20 percent of his graded stakes races, including victories with
Tsunami Slew in the Carleton F. Burke Handicap-G1 at Santa Anita, the Eddie
Read Handicap-G2 at Del Mar and the American Handicap-G2 at Hollywood Park.
These successes led to his first Kentucky Derby-G1
mount, Tanks Prospect, in 1985.
following year Stevens was the top rider on the west coast winning his
first Santa Anita riding title in 1986 with 103 victories. Three more Santa
Anita titles followed in 1988, 1990 and 1993.
also won riding titles at the Hollywood summer meet (1986 and 1988), Hollywood
fall meet (1986, 1988, 1992 and 1994), Del Mar (1987 and 1988) and Oak Tree
(1986, 1987 and 1997).
Third on the all time Santa
Anita stakes wins list and fourth on the all time Santa Anita wins list,
Stevens has won two stakes races on the same day at Santa Anita a remarkable
eight times and won three stakes races, including a victory aboard Awesome Daze
in the California Cup Classic, at Santa Anita on October 25, 1997.
Stevens, along with Shoemaker and John Longden, are the
only riders in history to have won back-to-back editions of the Santa Anita
However, his biggest southern
California riding feat may be his record nine Santa Anita Derby-G1 victories
one more than the great Shoemaker.
When I won the first time with Winning Colors in
1988, I thought it was great to win such a big race, said Stevens, who
won his ninth career Santa Anita Derby in 2003 aboard Buddy Gil. I could
never imagine winning two or three, much less nine and breaking
When asked the
most memorable race of his career, Stevens wastes little time in answering:
Riding Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby. No question about
In April of 1988, the big roan filly
took on and beat the boys in the Santa Anita Derby becoming the first
filly to win the race since Silver Spoon in 1959. It was at that moment that
her connections were convinced they should try her in the Kentucky Derby.
Only twice before Regret in 1915 and Genuine
Risk in 1980 had a filly won the Kentucky Derby. On May 7, 1988, with
Stevens in the irons, Winning Colors became the third.
Winning that race is just indescribable, he
said. Its the pinnacle of our profession. Its the Super Bowl,
the World Series, everything. You just feel fortunate to get a chance to ride
in the race, much less win it.
Colors, with Stevens aboard, went on to finish third in the 1988 Preakness
Stakes-G1 before nearly handing Personal Ensign her only career defeat in the
1988 Breeders Cup Distaff-G1. Stevens and his favorite filly had to settle
second, being nipped at the wire by the undefeated four-year-old champion.
The 1991 Mile
By the time the
1980s ended, Stevens was one of the racings brightest stars.
In 1990, his statistics included an Eclipse Award, a
nation-best $13 million in earnings, 10 grade one triumphs, three victories in
races worth $1 million or more and a total of 46 stakes wins.
It was a banner year for Stevens. However, one race
still eluded him. The Longacres Mile-G3, a race in which he had finished a
disappointing fifth aboard favorite Annual Date in 1990. Stevens had ridden in
four previous Miles; his fifth-place finish in 1990 was his best to date.
I always said I wanted to win the Mile before my
career was over, Stevens said.
time Stevens was finishing off the board in the 1990 Mile, Edmund Gann was
thinking about buying a horse in France. The horse was an Irish-bred named
Louis Cyphre. Gann paid $80,000 for the four-year-old and brought him to
America where he went to the barn of trainer Bobby Frankel.
Following victories in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap-G1 and
Golden Gate-Budweiser Fields Breeders Cup Handicap, Frankel shipped Louis
Cyphre to Washington for the 1991 Longacres Mile. The Irish-bred was exactly
what Stevens needed to fill the one void in his career as the duo easily won
the race by 4 1/2 lengths.
It felt better
than I thought it would, Stevens said after adding the elusive stakes to
his ever-growing resumé. I was trying to put it off in my mind
that it wasnt a big thing. But when I crossed the finish line, it was
something special. This is not the biggest money race, but its the one
Ive always wanted to win.
A Bittersweet Derby
won a remarkable 16 grade one races in 1995: Beldame Stakes; Haskell
Invitational; Mother Goose Stakes; Gazelle Handicap; Black-Eyed Susan Stakes on
the great Serenas Song; and the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Travers
Stakes and Swaps Stakes on Thunder Gulch.
his wins that year, none were as bittersweet as his Kentucky Derby victory
aboard Thunder Gulch. During the 1995 Derby week, former Longacres and Kentucky
Derby publicist Mark Kaufman died suddenly of a heart attack.
After Thunder Gulchs victory, Stevens honored his
I sent a message to his wife
that I was going to have a special passenger with me today and that I expected
to give him the most thrilling ride of his short life.
Silver Charms Almost Triple Crown
While Stevens declares Winning Colors victory in
the 1988 Kentucky Derby his most memorable race, his favorite mount was Silver
As it turned out, 1997 was loaded with
talented three-year-olds Touch Gold, Free House, Captain Bodgit and
Pulpit, just to name a few. But it was Silver Charm and Gary Stevens (who also
served as the president of The Jockeys Guild that year) that captured the
After winning the
Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Stevens went into the Belmont Stakes attempting
to guide Silver Charm into history as the sports 12th Triple Crown
Silver Charm, the 26th horse to accomplish
the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness dyad, became the 15th which did not
complete the Triple Crown after Touch Gold won the Belmont by a slim
three-quarters of a length in one of the greatest Belmont stretch runs ever.
Stevens had been worried the New York crowd would
boo the west coast-based jockey and horse upon their return after the mile and
a half classic, but it was quite the opposite, as the Belmont crowd showered
their efforts with cheers.
The following year,
Stevens guided Silver Charm to a victory in the Dubai World Cup-G1 and to a
second-place finish in the Breeders Cup Classic.
1998 also saw Stevens play the role of spoiler as he
guided Victory Gallop to a win in the Belmont, preventing Real Quiet from
taking the Triple Crown.
Retirement and Comeback
December 1, 1999, Stevens underwent surgery to have a cyst removed from his
right knee. The surgery came just four weeks after Stevens guided Anees to a
win in the Breeders Cup Juvenile-G1.
25 days later, he returned to racing, only to announce his retirement the next
day, citing chronic pain and wear and tear on his knees. It marked the fourth
time Stevens had his knees operated on, also going under the knife in 1995,
1997 and 1998.
He tried working as an assistant
for trainer Alex Hassinger and the Thoroughbred Corp. and as a jockeys
agent, but neither brought him same kind of satisfaction as riding and after
only 10 months Stevens ended his retirement and returned to riding on October
It didnt take Stevens long to get
back into the spotlight. Just a few months after his comeback he was riding
Kentucky Derby favorite Point Given, a son of Stevens 1995 Kentucky Derby
winner Thunder Gulch.
Point Given could not
duplicate his fathers success at Churchill Downs thanks in large
part to lightning-fast fractions and finished fifth behind winner
Monarchos in the Derby.
Stevens would later state
the 2001 Kentucky Derby was perhaps the loss he regretted most during his
career, as he believed the Bob Baffert-trained Point Given was deserving of the
Point Given more than backed up that
statement by winning both the Preakness and Belmont in impressive fashion.
It was like I had a loaded cannon and all I had
to do was pull the trigger when it was time, said Stevens following his
12-length victory aboard Point Given in the 2001 Belmont.
Lights, Camera, Action
first time filmmaker Gary Ross met Stevens he knew he had found his The
Iceman. Ross was briefly introduced to the jockey at Santa Anita, prior
to a day of racing in the winter of 2002.
Following the races, Ross, three years removed from
directing his first feature, Pleasantville, entered the jockeys
room with hopes of convincing the Hall of Fame rider to accept the role of
legendary jockey George Woolf in his screen adaptation of Laura
Hillenbrands best-selling novel Seabiscuit.
Ross had already secured Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper
and Tobey Maguire. Bridges had appeared in more than 50 films over the past
five decades; Cooper recently took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting
Actor for his role in Adaptation; and Maguire was coming off a
star-making performance as the title character in the ultra-successful
Despite this star-studded
line-up and the fact that Stevens had never acted before, Ross still personally
took the effort to track down Stevens.
didnt go as planned for the director. Stevens had ridden five races on
the days card finishing second four times. And for someone as
competitive as Stevens, seconds do not set well with him and the last thing on
his mind was acting.
I said two things to
him, Stevens remembered, You dont have enough money and I
dont have enough time and walked away. Turns out I was wrong about both
Stevens initial reaction was
certainly justifiable. He loved the book so much and felt there was no way a
film could do it justice. But Ross was persistent and eventually got Stevens to
read a copy of the script. From that moment on, Stevens was sold.
I get as much of an adrenalin rush out of acting
as I do in riding in races, Stevens said.
Seabiscuit ended up being one of 2003s
biggest cinematic hits grossing more than $120 million domestically at
the box office and receiving seven Academy Award nominations, including one for
I had no idea this would
happen, said Stevens, who recently wrote his auto- biography, The
Perfect Ride. I had no wish for it to happen, but sometimes gifts are
bestowed upon you when you least expect it.
His new found cinematic fame had much to do with his
being named one of People magazines 50 Most Beautiful People of
In the 2003
Arlington Million-G1, Stevens suffered a collapsed lung and fractured vertebra
when he had an horrific fall from Storming Home, who crossed the finish line
first, but was later disqualified from victory. It was the latest in a career
colored with injuries for Stevens.
again injuries did little to slow him, as he returned to riding less than three
weeks after the almost fatal incident.
Stevens had a stint as a contract rider for leading French conditioner Andre
Fabre. Stevens rode in France for five months, winning 55 races, including the
Prix Maurice de Gheest-G1 with Somnus, before returning to the United States in
Stevens and his second wife Nicky
reside in Arcadia, CA. He and his former wife Toni Baze (Garys sister)
have four children: daughters Ashely and Carlie and sons T. C. and Riley.
With a budding movie career in the works, Stevens is
currently weighing his options as to what he will do next.
As far as retirement is concerned, I have no time
line, Stevens said. I was a raving lunatic for the 11 months that I
spent out and I love mixing the two professions together.
One things for certain, whichever path Stevens
chooses to take, odds are success will follow.
for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.