Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Three-time winner Stevens rejuvenated for another run at roses

Kentucky Derby hopeful Oxbow, with Gary Stevens up, worked Monday at Churchill Downs. Photo by Jonathan Palmer.
Kentucky Derby hopeful Oxbow, with Gary Stevens up, worked Monday at Churchill Downs. Photo by Jonathan Palmer. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — Welcome back, old friend.

Seven years is a long time.

It's not as if we totally lost track of Gary Stevens. After all, he usually sits right beside Tom Hammond on the NBC Triple Crown telecasts adding expert commentary to the races. He did some acting, notably the movie Seabiscuit and the HBO mini-series Luck.

Where we had not seen the Hall of Fame jockey was riding in a race. Truth be told, that's something we never thought we would see again.

And yet, here we are at the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby and here is 50-year-old Stevens teaming with 77-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas as the connections for the Calumet Farm-owned Oxbow, both attempting to revive past glory.

As nice as it is to have Stevens back, why is he back?

"The answer is because I could," Stevens said after working Oxbow on Monday. "I didn't want to be 70 years old and say, 'Man, I could have come back.'"

Stevens didn't want to leave his profession in the first place. Weight struggles and chronic knee pain led Stevens to hang up his whip.

After winning Derbys in 1988 (Winning Colors for Lukas), 1995 (Thunder Gulch for Lukas) and 1997 (Silver Charm for Bob Baffert), the fire was no longer there.

Several times over the past few years, he had considered returning, but he didn't give it serious thought until last fall.

"I met him at the Breeders' Cup and he hinted at that," Lukas said. "I said, 'See how you're getting along and I'll give you a call the first of the year.'"

In the meantime, Stevens put together a plan. He hired a personal trainer, a dietitian and a life coach.

"I had come back from injuries before where I was out five, six, seven months, and I knew how hard it was coming back from those and getting race-fit again," he said. "Being off seven years, I knew what it was going to take, just put it that way."

During his retirement, Stevens weighed as much as 134 pounds. Now, he says, he can tack 116 pounds without much problem.

"I'm actually lighter right now than I've been probably since I was 20 years old," he said.

Still, he had to regain the confidence of trainers and owners. He rode his comeback race Jan. 6. He got his first win Jan. 12. He won his first stakes race in early February.

In the meantime, he got that call from Lukas, who said he had a couple of promising 3-year-olds he was pointing to the Derby, and "if one of them looks like he's going to make it, you'd be my choice."

"Here we are," Stevens said.

Oxbow won the LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds and finished fourth in the Risen Star with Jon Court aboard. He was second in the Rebel under Mike Smith before a disappointing fifth-place finish for Stevens in the Arkansas Derby on April 13.

"I'm going to say right now in front of you guys, I took a bullet for the whole team in the Arkansas Derby," said Stevens, who was riding the horse for the first time and tried to get the son of Awesome Again to come off the pace. "I received a lot of criticism for that ride and I'll take the criticism. I knew when I crossed the finish line it was a mistake to try and take him back."

"That will not be in the grandchildren's highlight film," Lukas said. "But when they're (as good as Stevens), you know you can send them out there and correct it. You can make it right."

Other trainers think the same. Todd Pletcher has Stevens on his filly Silsita in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday before the jockey climbs aboard Oxbow on Saturday.

"Mentally and attitude-wise, he's better than I've ever seen him," Lukas said of Stevens. "The experience factor, you can't downplay it, with 20 horses especially."

Stevens claims he hasn't allowed himself to think about possibly winning his fourth Kentucky Derby after a seven-year layoff. There is one thing he knows for sure.

"It's the greatest feeling on earth," he said, "and I'd love to feel it again."

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