Last spring, the glory days seemed long gone for two Hall of Famers who combined to take the Kentucky Derby twice. Gary Stevens was a retired jockey doing racing commentary for NBC, and trainer D. Wayne Lukas was near the end of a 116-race losing streak in graded stakes.
The old guys are back, looking for a third Derby victory together. Stevens, 50, ended a seven-year retirement in January and will ride long shot Oxbow for Lukas, 77, on Saturday at Churchill Downs, which was unimaginable even six months ago. Could Derby 139 be one for the aged?
"This horse is a good fit for Gary," Lukas said. "I'm comfortable with Gary, and I like his 'been there, done that' attitude. I think it will really work."
It's been 25 years since Lukas and Stevens each got his first Derby with the filly Winning Colors. No sporting event drips with sentimentality like this one, and a turn-back-the-clock triumph would be an unforgettable senior moment.
Stevens' last Derby was in 2005, and in February, he said he'd analyze the race for NBC if he couldn't find a horse "with a legitimate chance of winning. I've ridden in enough Derbies. I'd just as soon sit up in the booth than be on an also-ran."
Oxbow was fifth in the Arkansas Derby, but Lukas and Stevens scored with 25-1 Thunder Gulch in the 1995 Derby, so you never can tell.
Getting back in the saddle beat longer odds than Oxbow's will be (at least 20-1). Stevens reduced from 133 pounds to 114 and said he's "probably fitter than I've ever been." First he had to dismiss "Why bother?" thoughts.
"I knew I would be under the microscope, and I really didn't know how things were going to turn out," Stevens said. He also quit in December 1999 because of knee pain before returning in October 2000. "I didn't want this to be a show at the carnival. I wanted people to know I was serious. The last thing I wanted was people thinking, 'All right, here he goes again.' "
A talk with older brother Scott Stevens, a jockey at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, was the clincher. "He told me, 'Man, if you're feeling it, what else are you going to do? Just do it.' "
It soon became apparent that Stevens still had it. Within a week, he was in Santa Anita's winner's circle, and a month later, he'd won four stakes.
"I feel a lot better than I did the last five years I was riding," he said. "And people have commented I look better on a horse now than I did when I was hurting."
Among them is Todd Pletcher, who trains at least five horses Stevens will have to beat.
"I've been a big fan of Gary's for a number of years," Pletcher said, "and like everyone else, I was very interested when he decided to make a comeback. I was amazed at how good and youthful he looked on horses. I think any time you can put a guy like Gary on in one of these big races, with his experience, that's an asset."
Lukas also will run another long shot, Will Take Charge. A fifth trophy would put him one behind leader Ben Jones and supplant Charlie Whittingham (76 in 1989) as oldest winning trainer. A fourth for Stevens would tie Bill Shoemaker for second, one in back of Bill Hartack and Eddie Arcaro. Even if they finish far back, seeing the old Wisconsin cowboy and a star of the movie "Seabiscuit" reconnecting on the biggest stage is special.
"I don't feel any different than when I came here when I was 50," Lukas said. "This whole thing is what keeps us young."
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