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.
As last year’s Triple Crown season unfolded, an old itch surfaced.
Angie Athayde-Stevens listened to her husband criticize other jockeys when he came home from the analyst booth. He remained grumpy throughout the summer, until his wife had enough.
“He would complain constantly, ‘I can beat these guys,’ and it was driving me crazy,” she said. “Finally, I said just go do it and quit complaining about it.”
Leaving Angie and their 3-year-old daughter Maddie, Stevens moved to the Seattle suburbs for a two-month training program. He endured two-a-day physical workouts and had nutritionists place him on a rigorous diet. Doctors tested his blood weekly to purge alcohol from his system and sports psychologists prepared him for the rigors of being a pro athlete again.
It was hard for a man who calls family his biggest prize. His father introduced him, and his brother Scott, to racing as boys growing up in Idaho. Now business stops only for Maddie, his four grown children and his 1-year-old granddaughter. Priorities become a boo-boo on a big toe, father-daughter waltzes in their back yard or proudly displaying smartphone photos to friends. He knows they understand his short fuse as race days draw near.
Many of his most trusted friends, Stevens said, thought he was out of his mind for attempting a comeback. Giving up his commentator jobs, plus the occasional acting role, in order to test his 115-pound frame seemed downright dangerous.
Actor Nick Nolte, who starred in “Luck,” said Stevens’s decision matches his intensity.
“Gary threw himself into acting with reckless abandon,” Nolte said. “He’s all heart and the kind of guy who doesn’t feel alive unless he’s putting it all on the line. The comeback makes perfect sense to me.”
Stevens knew his choice would be scrutinized, not unlike Michael Jordan’s return to basketball to play for the Washington Wizards or Brett Favre, who perennially delayed his retirement.
“I knew that I would be under the microscope more than any time in my career,” Stevens said.
A day back at the track
Early one morning last month, clouds lifted over the San Gabriel Mountains as Stevens briskly strode to Clockers’ Corner at Santa Anita race track. Horse after beautiful horse passed trainers, owners and horsemen who cradled paper coffee cups in air thick with the musty smell of dirt, manure and cigarette smoke. Occasionally the sound of galloping hoofs was interrupted by the obscenities of locker-room humor from many who are short in stature but long in bravado.
It was a typical start to a day for Stevens, here at the track that skyrocketed his career beginning with an apprenticeship in 1979 and where he later won a record nine Santa Anita Derbies to best his racing idol, Willie Shoemaker. The track also saved him from painful times once before, he said, giving him peace during a difficult four-year divorce in the 1990s.
In many ways Santa Anita is his home. Security guards stop traffic for his truck. His photo adorns the front entrance.
Talk is fast in Stevens’s world. There is hustling for mounts, strategy sessions and timed training rides. There is a blur of logistics: booking flights and motor coaches and arranging for the family and two dogs to join him for his Triple Crown bid. Plus healing from the knocks of previous races.
He met with a father-daughter duo who trained Stevens’s mount, Storm Fighter, in last month’s Santa Anita Derby.
Later, agent Craig O’Brien, a puffy-faced man, arrived with five minutes worth of updates of possible horses for Stevens’s upcoming races. They batted around dates while Stevens juggled schedules in his mind.
He has ridden plenty of great horses, and the results often come down to chemistry.
“Give me a great bond with a horse that’s third best over the best horse,” Stevens said.
Since beginning his comeback, he hasn’t found that bond in the top races. In the Dubai World Cup, his mount racked his shoulder into the starting gate and finished in 11th place. There was a disappointing sixth place at Santa Anita; and Oxbow — the horse he will ride Saturday — was out of the money at the Arkansas Derby.
Riding to win
Winning the Kentucky Derby has meant the world to Stevens.
His first victory at Churchill Downs aboard Winning Colors in 1988 opened up opportunities to mount seven more Triple Crown race winners, including two more in Kentucky. It earned him the role of personal jockey for an Arab emir and Queen Elizabeth II.
Fellow Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, 47, who will compete against Stevens Saturday aboard Palace Malice, said his friend is “as hungry as ever.”
“He’s riding better now than the past few years before he retired,” Smith said.
Riding as fast as possible in a crowded field slows down the world for Stevens. The 90-plus seconds around the oval are when life seems to make the most sense to him.
Here he can face the danger of being put to the ground, yet avoid tragedy and protect himself because he knows how to read horses. He can switch his whip hand, change the lead foot and control the action best to maximize his opportunity.
The thought of winning the Kentucky Derby has an articulate man, who until recently made his living as a professional commentator, struggle for full sentences to describe his reverence and desire for victory.
“I would rather just do analyst work, than to just ride in the Kentucky Derby,” Stevens said. He’s back in racing not just to ride, but to win. His preparation and decision will be tested. And Stevens will need some newfound Luck.