After weeks of coyness and speculation surrounding the status of his retirement, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens confirmed Thursday he will return to riding, ending a seven-year hiatus, beginning Sunday at Santa Anita Park.
Stevens, who announced his retirement in a news conference at Churchill Downs in November 2005, had the rumor mill flying the past couple months after going through an intense fitness program in Washington state and getting on horses in the morning at Santa Anita.
Saying he is now fitter than he was in his 20s, the 49-year-old Stevens will launch his comeback in the sixth race at Santa Anita on Sunday aboard the 5-year-old Jebrica but still plans to continue in his role as an analyst for HRTV and NBC Sports for the immediate future.
Stevens initially worked as an analyst for TVG when he retired in 2005.
"I didn't really want to make some sort of announcement until I was sure this was what I wanted to do," said Stevens, who was inducted into Racing's Hall of Fame in 1997. "My passion is still there or I should say my passion has come back. I've worked some very good horses here at Santa Anita for some top trainers that kind of made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I didn't know how much I was missing it."
Though still at the top of his skill set when he retired, Stevens was partially driven out of the saddle due to chronic pain in his knees so intense he says didn't want to be in the gate most days.
The three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey says the training and nutritional program he has engaged in has all but eliminated those aches. Still, Stevens says there is no guarantee the pain won't return, which is one of the reasons he is maintaining his analyst positions.
"One of the reasons I quit riding was I didn't feel like I was helping horses like I used to because of the pain I was having with my knees," said Stevens, who also briefly retired in 1999 because of his knees. "The pain is gone with the rehab workouts I've gone through.
"I'm sleeping well with no anti-inflammatories and no medications ... For the last 15 years that I rode, there was hardly a day went by where there was not some sort of anti-inflammatory in my system and that did some damage to my liver. Fortunately, your liver is able to repair itself and I'm a pretty healthy guy right now. The strength is there and the fitness is there."
Stevens, who does not have an agent but said he expects to make progress on that in the coming days, added he has gotten his weight down to 119 "without trying" and would like to tack 118 comfortably.
When he retired in 2005, Stevens had racked up 4,888 wins and more than $221 million in career earnings but that total did not include more than 100 victories in Europe, the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Hong Kong not recognized by Equibase.
In addition to his trio of Derby wins, the first of which came aboard the filly Winning Colors in 1988, Stevens won two editions of the Preakness Stakes, three runnings of the Belmont Stakes and compiled eight Breeders' Cup triumphs.
The list of legendary mounts in his career was lengthy by any standard, counting the aforementioned Winning Colors, fellow Hall of Famers Point Given, Silver Charm, Silverbulletday and Serena's Song as well as Grade I standouts Thunder Gulch, Editor's Note and Da Hoss.
Just as he was discriminating with mounts toward the end of his last go-round, Stevens plans to put his efforts toward quality again.
"Put it this way, I don't think you'll see me on any maiden $25,000s," Stevens said. "I'm going to be selective, very selective in what I ride and if that means not riding at all or upsetting people then so be it. But I didn't come back to ride five days a week and ride nine races a day. I came back to hopefully ride some quality horses and hopefully help develop that horse's future. That's what I was all about when I was riding before."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com, Twitter: @horseracinghl.