Acting had offered a dreamy second career for Stevens, who retired from horse racing in 2005 with eight Triple Crown race victories. When the show was abruptly canceled last year, it hit him hard — the reckless lifestyle of his character Ronnie became Stevens’s reality. Too many late nights and too much drinking left him feeling desperately out of shape, both physically and mentally.
“I think when ‘Luck’ got canceled I was in a state of depression,” Stevens said during an April interview at his Los Angeles area home. “I needed some cleaning up in a lot of different areas of my life.”
The 50-year-old chose an unlikely path to regain control: a return to racing. Last fall he launched an intensive workout program. He laid off alcohol. He started racing, in Arkansas, California and Dubai.
On Saturday, the grandfather with chronic knee pain will chase glory again at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville.
Stevens has ridden for Arabian princes and even the queen of England. He won the Kentucky Derby three times — the first a quarter-century ago — and nearly won the elusive Triple Crown aboard Point Given in 2001.
His is the unsatisfied mind of a world-class athlete, at times as complex as the art of handicapping races. Stevens displays raw ambition and small-town humility; he is a family man who cannot stay off the open road; he loves security but remains a risk taker.
Stevens and his mount, Oxbow, face long odds. The jockey has had several wins since his January return, but none has been in high-stakes races.
For Stevens, the comeback means risking his health. It also brings the possibility that he could write a new end to his storied career, one that fizzles.
It is a bet he’s willing to take.
‘Just go do it’
Stevens has nearly died on the track twice. He cannot think of any bones he has not broken and fears coming up with one, lest he jinx himself. Surgeons have operated on his knees 14 times, reconstructed both shoulders and reconnected his left collarbone somewhere near his throat — not where it belongs.
Multiple surgeries forced him to retire from racing for the first time in 1999, but he was back after only 10 months. He left a second time in 2005, at age 42. That time, Stevens thought it would be for good.
Acting gave him the same adrenaline rush as racing, he said, with pressure to perform on camera. He started in the role of George Woolf in the Oscar-nominated film “Seabiscuit” in 2003. After “Luck,” he knew the “chances were zero” he’d land another steady role right away.
He’d also been working as a well-respected analyst for NBC Sports and HRTV, but he felt too many people told him what to do. As a jockey he’d worked for a lot of bosses, hundreds of trainers and owners. But for only 20 minutes at a time.