Timing is everything I always say. So much of The Sport of Kings involves time and timing. It seemed like a lot longer than 14 days, for Gary Stevens to add another chapter to his Encore, of what is one of the greatest comeback feats in professional sports. It’s truly a remarkable achievement, and racing, and the sports world in general, never celebrated the accomplishment enough to do it justice. If you missed our article on this historic comeback, you can read it here.
When Avanzare crossed the wire first in the Grade 2 Arcadia at Santa Anita, it gave Gary Stevens his 4999th winner in the United States. It was actually his 5139th winner worldwide. While I have no doubt Gary still has the desire to win the biggest races, from a career perspective there was really nothing left to accomplish except that 5000th one. After all, he has won nearly everything else even the most aspiring young rider could even dream of, in a career that has seen success on the biggest stages and highest levels of the game.
What I found most telling about Gary and his career was during the 14 days between Avanzare taking the Arcadia, giving Gary his 5th win in the event, and Catch a Flight taking an allowance race notching 5000, he never flinched. A lot of riders, hit that invisible wall that seems to just appear before a milestone. Now you may say Gary hit it as well, and cite the 14 days between wins as your validation. Should you take that route however, you will be exposing yourself as a novice race watcher and not a true student of the game with a keen eye.
Jockeys are people just like the rest of us. They feel pressure and want to perform well. Their careers and livelihoods depend on it. There are no contracts or guarantees. You have to win. That, in itself, is enough pressure. Putting yourself on a list of only 30 riders to ever win 5000 races only adds to it. That’s where that wall comes in. A lot of jocks push, they press for it. They move too soon or get too aggressive. Their timing gets off. They get over anxious. They wait too long. We all know about the million ways to lose a race. With Gary it didn’t. Yes it took 14 days, but he only rode 12 horses in that span, and his riding was excellent. There were some close finishes that didn’t go his way, and it was easy to fault the rider, but again you’d be exposing yourself, not him. His riding was flawless, and did not succumb to the pressure.
Let’s take the Robert Lewis. Gary rode Firing Line, a well-regarded up and coming colt. Dortmund, one of the early Kentucky Derby favorites was in the race, and there were many who thought Firing Line could beat him. They had hit the wire together in their previous race at Los Alamitos, with Dortmund out gaming him. That was before Gary was riding and the word was Firing Line had improved since that race. It would have been story book for Gary to get that 5000th win in a race named for the owner of a horse he rode to great success. Robert and Beverly Lewis campaigned Silver Charm, who Gary rode to victory in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and even Dubai World Cup. Gary did his part, and as he has done so many times in the past, he put his mount right where it needed to be, in a position to win the race. He moved around Dortmund on the turn, took the lead into the stretch, and appeared on his way to 5000. Dortmund had another idea. He re rallied down on the inside and again out gamed his foe. No excuse for Firing Line that was visible anyway. If he could have won he would have and it was the same way with the other close ones over the 14 days. What impressed was how Gary never flinched, he just showed up every day and did what he does, put his mounts in position to win, whether they are the best horse in the race or not. Can you ask more of a rider?
That type of professionalism, and not succumbing to pressure, is part of what made Gary the rider he is. You have to have that coolness to compete at the highest levels of sport and not fail. Gary has always had that dedication and ability.
When I contacted Gary Stevens to congratulate him on a job well done, I asked: How did this rank against all the others?
“Equal to my 5000th worldwide win. Gotta go do it again tomorrow. At the end of the day no more important than my first win and my next one. They are all earned.”
Watching Gary compete, and pad his already fulgurant Hall of Fame stats, against one of the toughest jockey colonies in the world, at 51, with a new knee, is inspiring. He proves age is just a number, even in a young man’s game. He’s writing his own really special chapter in racing history. It’s fun to be a small part of it.
Not long after 5000, Gary Stevens guided Diversy Harbor to a win in the Buena Vista Stakes. Diversy Harbor, and Avanzare, are both trained by Tom Proctor, who has been riding Gary for years. They go way back and even stole a Breeders’ Cup Distaff together with One Dreamer. A nice bookend to the milestone. As was getting to 5000, the next one was just a matter of time.
It’s also just a matter of time until we find out if Metaboss is a candidate for the Kentucky Derby. While winning The El Camino Real over synthetic is not normally a warning shot of a new contender for the roses, this improving colt has a buzz around him. He’s owned in part by a very vocal group on Facebook, Homeless Handicappers, who after the colt’s impressive victory at Golden Gate Fields, took to the social media site, and all but announced their plans to be in the gate on the first Saturday in May. While he will have to step up his game considerably, and do so moving back to dirt, where he ran his worst race to date, the premise is not impossible. When Metaboss raced on dirt earlier he was just learning what it’s all about. He has improved since then and developed a nice turn of foot coming from off the pace. He has handled grass and synthetic and I would guess dirt is not what stops his Run for the Roses, if he makes it. He’ll just need to show if he can be as effective against top three year olds. That’s not an insignificant if.
And speaking of Derby preps this weekend we have the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. This is when things really start taking shape on the East Coast and I expect a new addition to most people’s Derby lists come Saturday. Not mine however, he’s already there. Pick 6 King’s Derby Radar “Click Here”.
Gary Stevens, 5000 US wins and counting