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Gary Stevens is having a 'Classic' revival

Gary Stevens fields questions from the media after

Gary Stevens fields questions from the media after riding Oxbow during the morning excercise session in preparation for the 139th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (April 29, 2013) Credit: Getty

A year ago, retired Hall of Famer Gary Stevens was analyzing the Preakness Stakes for NBC. Eight days ago, the 50-year-old was riding in it. A few minutes before post time, he considered blending those skill sets.

As Donna Barton Brothers, NBC's horseback reporter, rode by, Stevens goofed on her. "After the prerace warm-up, I was joking with Donna. I said, 'Can I borrow that microphone and interview Joel halfway through the race?' And she said, 'You're not getting this microphone.' "

Stevens envisioned a backstretch moment with Joel Rosario, Orb's rider, like the one Stevens and Tobey Maguire had in "Seabiscuit.'' Although the Kentucky Derby winner never got within shouting distance of the front-running Oxbow, it's too bad Stevens wasn't miked up. He would have been the ultimate embedded reporter, chronicling history while making it.

The galloping grandfather never had to sweat while setting a leisurely pace on 15-1 shot Oxbow.

"When I hit the half-mile pole, I thought, 'Are you kidding me? Is this really happening?' The race was over at that point."

If Stevens had broadcast that live, it would have gone viral on a day when AARP stood for Aging Athlete Rules Preakness.

"To win a classic at 50 after being retired for seven years, it doesn't get any better than this," Stevens said. "This is super sweet . . . All the stars were aligned."

He pulled it off only four months into his comeback, and to racing analyst Richard Migliore, a former jockey, it's "one of the greatest sports stories of all time."

Imagine if it had happened in a mainstream sport. What if 50-year-old Michael Jordan had returned this season and put up a triple-double in a Game 7 upset? The glorifying would have been nonstop, the movie deal with Denzel Washington sealed.

Stevens always has been a restless soul, a relentless seeker of new challenges no matter how much he had achieved. Horses are in his DNA. He was grooming them at 8 for his father, Ron, a trainer, and his mother, Barbara, was a rodeo queen. Older brother Scott is a jockey. At 13, Gary broke in at bush tracks and county fairs in his native Idaho, and at 23 was Santa Anita's leading rider. Two years later, in 1988, he won the Derby for the first time, teaming with Oxbow's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, with the filly Winning Colors. Stevens has three wins apiece in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He has competed regularly in England and France, for the Queen of England and Arabian princes.

Chronic knee pain (14 operations) forced him to retire in December 1999. He became an assistant trainer but was riding 10 months later. He quit again, seemingly for good, in November 2005.

Two years earlier, he received good reviews for his portrayal of dapper jockey George Woolf in "Seabiscuit,'' and the handsome, articulate Stevens embraced acting as a substitute for the adrenaline rush of riding.

"The acting business and Hollywood are very parallel with the horse racing business,'' he said, "and it's pretty much what can you do for me tomorrow and not what you did for me yesterday.''

In January 2011, HBO premiered the critically acclaimed series "Luck," starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. Stevens played Ronnie Jenkins, a pill-popping alcoholic looking for a mount to revive his career. Stevens tapped into his dark side and was a convincing villain as the aging, nasty jock. In March 2012, early in its second season, HBO abruptly canceled "Luck" after a third horse died during production.

"It destroyed a lot of us for a short time, and there's still grief in it," Stevens said in February. "But if 'Luck' was still rolling, I probably wouldn't be back in the saddle now. It was kind of giving me my fix. I felt like I was back in the game, riding races, and I felt like I was lacking something when it disappeared.''

He liked doing commentary for HRTV and NBC, but his competitive juices still were percolating. He decided to give riding one last chance, and workout, diet and nutritional regimens helped him go from 133 pounds to 114. A week after returning, Stevens was in Santa Anita's winners' circle. He said the pain is gone and that he feels fitter than he did 10 years ago. He has gone from out of "Luck" back into the spotlight, yet even last weekend there were moments of doubt.

Entering the race before the Preakness, the Dixie Handicap, Stevens was in an 0-for-39 slump. "I thought my business was lacking, that maybe this was a mistake." Then he led all the way on 24-1 Skyring, trained by Lukas, foreshadowing his classic theft on Oxbow.

"It had been a month since I won a race," he said, "and I was questioning myself. When I won on Skyring, you don't know what a boost that gave me going into the Preakness. I was very happy, very relaxed. It's funny how things go. One race can really boost your spirits, doesn't matter if you're 16 or 50.''

On June 8, Stevens could earn his fourth Belmont trophy, and he likes Oxbow's chances in the 1 1/2-mile marathon that often favors speed.

"This horse has that kind of pace, and anybody that wants to come and tangle with him early on, bring it on," he said. "All I'm going to say is you're going to get in trouble if you do."

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