Stealing Without a Gun, How Gary Stevens Stole the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Distaff

March 26, 2020

Gary Stevens wins the Kentucky Derby on the filly Winning Colors

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens literally has countless great rides on his stellar resume. They pair with the many greats he has piloted to victory in the biggest races in the world. Great riders like Gary are capable of something very special in the Sport of Kings. They possess the ability to win when not necessarily on the best horse. That is special, and part of what separates the true greats from all the others. As many a horseman have said, anyone can win on the best horse. Only the champion riders can win when not on the best horse. Gary Stevens, by any standard was one of those riders.

One of Gary’s strengths as a rider, in my opinion, was that he didn’t have a weakness. He was good at everything, and was obviously a thinking and somewhat cerebral jockey. His physical talent in the irons was matched by his brains. Where he was deadly though was on the lead. If there was a big race, and it could be stolen, Gary Stevens is as good a choice of rider as you make. Good handicappers look at all the factors including the potential intangibles in a race. When I look at a race, I look at not only the horses, but also the riders and the trainers. The best jockeys do that also. I remember looking at the 2005 Whitney. I think most people knew Saint Liam was a better horse than Commentator. Commentator loved the Spa though, and Gary was up. He had speed and knowing Gary I was confident he’d use it. I may be a tad biased here, but this ride was a thing of beauty. Note how Gary never even thought about the stick until the eighth pole, and you know he heard and felt the Saint coming. I know I did.

Let’s go back:

Hard to believe but this is only one of Gary’s best wire to wire rides in a major race. Saint Liam became a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, but it was Commentator and Gary Stevens who were best in the 2005 Whitney at Saratoga. You’d be hard pressed to argue Stevens ride was not a difference maker.

That Whitney was in 2005, but it was nothing new for Stevens. Rewind back to 1994, 11 years prior, and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs and you’ll see another of the best wire to wire rides ever.

“You have just witnessed a felony.”

That was how Tom Durkin described Gary Stevens’ ride. I don’t recall ever hearing a ride being referred to as a felony on a national broadcast.

I remember thinking Gary Stevens just stole that race and he didn’t even need a gun.

I caught up with Gary the other day and we discussed the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and Kentucky Derby he “stole.” We also talked about race riding, specifically speed riding and why he excelled at it.

“Those two fillies and those two races had a lot in common. Both were big strong gray fillies and had speed. Both could roll along pretty good on the front, and in both those races, which also happened to be at Churchill Downs, I had a plan in my mind going in, and I was able to execute it and everything fell into place the same way it laid out in my head. I won’t take anything away from either filly, both were extremely talented, but I don’t know either was the best horse in either race, both those fields were stacked, really stacked. “

When you are preparing to ride in a race where you think you will be on or near the front, do you look at only the horses, or do you try and anticipate what other riders will do?

“Oh definitely. I always thought about other riders. I knew their tendencies, I knew their preferences, and I would use that to my advantage. If I knew a patient rider was on another speed horse, I knew I could discourage them by going early. Knowing other riders was as important as knowing other horses. I could anticipate what they would or maybe wouldn’t do.”

Gary Stevens and One Dreamer hold off Pat Day and Heavenly Prize in the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Distaff

Did you know a lot about One Dreamer before that Breeders’ Cup?

“Not really. Earlie Fires had been riding her a lot. I went way back with Tom Proctor and when they went to me I knew she was primarily a turf filly who had speed. I also knew she was big and strong, so I liked that.”

What was your plan going in, and what if any instructions did you and Tom talk about in the paddock?

“Well, as I normally do in a race, and especially when I am going to be in front, which I thought I would be in this race, I have splits in my mind I want to go in. If I can get my splits early, and get to the three eights pole I can turn it into a sprint to the wire. So I had that plan and Tom told me just let her roll and take her to the front so we were on the same page. I know if I can come home in say 35 and change they won’t be able to catch me.”

During the race you were out in front, obviously according to your plan, you were also over 40-1, were you confident, how did she feel, were you wondering when they would come and get you? What was going through your mind as Tom Durkin called ” Gary Stevens is trying to steal it on the front end ” ?

“I didn’t hear that until afterwards but I was very confident actually. She felt great. Like an old pair of my boots. I saw her ears fluttering, and she was real comfortable. I knew there were some real good horses behind me, but I loved the splits, and when I got to the three eighths pole I knew I would be tough to catch.”

Nearing the wire Pat Day and Heavenly Prize were closing and getting closer to you. Did you think they may get you and when did you know you had it won? What goes through your mind in a stretch drive and battle like that?

“I already knew I had it won. By that point she was like a Porsche and had as many gears as I needed. She felt good and was digging in. I could feel she would not let Heavenly Prize, a real nice classy filly go by. If you watch the gallop out, she never did let her go by.”

Craig Bernick owns Glen Hill Farm. His grandfather Leonard Lavin owned it at the time One Dreamer won the Distaff. We checked in with Craig to see if he was there. He was. He was 16 years old.

“Earlie Fires was her regular rider but Gary rode One Dreamer in the G2 Louisville Budweiser Breeders Cup on Oaks Day (now the G1 La Troienne) because Earlie’s agent had given the call away”.

“We ran her on on the dirt on Oaks Day because she was given too much weight in a turf race, and our main goal for that year was the Beverly D, as it was in Chicago. If she had won the turf race on Oaks Day she would have had to carry too much weight all year so we ran on the dirt, and Gary was open. She won the race on Oaks Day really well and I think we always sort of had Gary in mind if we went back to the Breeders’ Cup.”

“The 1994 Breeders Cup was the 10th edition, and up until that point the Distaff never had a winner pay double digits for a $2 win bet. The field was loaded (Sky Beauty, Hollywood Wildcat, and Heavenly Prize) but our mare was going really well and liked Churchill. One Dreamer was like a locomotive in that she had a high cruising speed and could really string a field out. Gary was probably the best rider I’ve ever seen but he was doubly effective with a speed horse, as he had such good hands that he’d let the horse take him to the lead, then probably move earlier than any other jockey. He’d take the run out of the closers because he’d take the run out of them. They’d all flatten out a bit but he’d have a big advantage.”

“I just remember that Tom was super confident about One Dreamer at Churchill He had worked her the same morning as the Derby horses and she worked better than any of them. Tom never gave a ton of instructions but in the paddock Tom told Gary he’d probably be on the lead but to just let her into her stride, let drop her head at the half mile pole even if she was way in front and see what happens. He said if you win don’t jump in the air like a dummy, we’ll celebrate when you get back to the winners circle. Neither Gary nor Tom acted like she was 47/1.”

This guy was pretty sharp at 16.

Relive it!

Watch the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Distaff here:

Go back to 1988 and you’ll find another historic front end ride by the master. Not only was it the Kentucky Derby, one of the hardest races in the world to win, Gary did it with a filly. Only the third filly to win the Run for the Roses. Regret and Genuine Risk had done it before, so we all knew it was possible, but it is a rarity and had not been done since.

Winning Colors and jockey Gary Stevens win the 1988 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

It was a little different with Winning Colors, you were her regular rider and knew her. Did that make things easier?

“Well it’s never easy in those races. The fields are usually loaded. Yes and no though. Yes I knew her, and I had been riding her and we beat the boys in the Santa Anita Derby. I know she was a fan favorite and betting favorite going into the Derby. She really wasn’t on the backside though. Most horsemen, and most of the other riders didn’t really respect her at the mile and a quarter. A lot of people questioned whether she could get that distance.”

What about you, did you think she could get the didtsnce?

“You never know until they do it, but I thought under the right circumstances, and if I could get her the right trip yes. I thought she’d get it. She definitely was not getting the respect from horsemen on the backside though.”

Did that lack of respect go into your game plan at all? Was it as simple as go to the lead and hope for the best?

“To answer the first question yes. That absolutely went into the game plan. It was a big part of it actually. When I ride on the front, I like when they don’t respect the speed, or think we can’t get the distance. That is exactly what happened in that Derby. If they don’t respect you, they will leave you alone longer, let you control the splits, and think you will come back to them. I loved that when I was in front. If you watch that race and then watch the Preakness you can see what I mean. Pat Day, a very patient, extremely patient rider, I mean Pat wait all day right, was on Forty Niner, and I knew they didn’t think we could get the mile and a quarter. I knew he would be patient and leave us alone. he did and we were able to get home and hold him off. He may have been on the best horse that day, we’ll never know but if you watch the Preakness, at a shorter distance, you can see he comes after us earlier. If they don’t respect you, it is an edge. To answer the second part, no, not quite that simple. I had spoken to Wayne at the track kitchen. We plotted the race out. The plan was to turn it into a 35 and change workout the last three eighths.”

Were you as confident coming to the wire in that Kentucky Derby as you were in that Distaff?

“It was a little different. I knew I had it measured but I was glad the wire was where it was.”

I know you have said Beholder was the best you’ve ridden, where does this Derby winning filly rank? I also know we’ve joked about the last one being the best one. How does a rider like yourself rate horses from different times and even eras? Can it be done?

“Well yes I have said that and we do get caught up with the most recent or last ones. It is a passionate sport. At the end of the day you really can’t compare horses from different times. It is just too subjective. I’ve said Beholder, and we know how special she was. Winning Colors was also very special, very special and she won the Kentucky Derby as a filly and proved it. She never really got her due in my opinion and I will absolutely give it to her.”

Watch Gary Stevens and Winning Colors steal the Kentucky Derby:

I could talk horses with Gary Stevens all day. Craig Bernick too actually. As for Gary his memory of every detail in these races is remarkable. I didn’t have to ask him if he misses riding. His competitiveness and desire oozes out. As a gambler I’m all in that he misses it. A lot.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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This article is a must read. 1st ballot Hall of Fame horseplayer, generous teacher and heralded writer! Thanks John.…

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