By Nicole Russo
Many things have changed for Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens since he retired from race riding in late 2005. The list includes new jobs, a new addition to the family and, most recently, a new TV show.
But there’s also something that hasn’t changed: his passion for thoroughbred racing.
“The first thing I do (in the morning) is I read the Thoroughbred Daily News, I get on my computer,” said Stevens, who will give the keynote speech at the 2010 Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Aug. 13 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “I keep myself updated. Then, if we’re in Southern California, I go out to the track every single morning at Santa Anita. Here in Kentucky right now, it's pretty much the same thing – go out to the racetrack. Basically, everything revolves around horse racing.”
A native of Idaho who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, Stevens rode his first winner in 1979. He retired in November 2005 with 5,005 career victories and more than $221 million earned by his mounts. The Eclipse Award winner as America’s top jockey in 1998, Stevens won eight Triple Crown races – the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes three times each and the Preakness twice – as well as eight Breeders’ Cup events.
Gary Stevens (courtesy NYRA)
Following his retirement from the saddle, Stevens began working as an analyst for the horse racing network TVG in 2006, then another racing channel, HRTV, in January 2008. He also serves as one of the lead analysts for NBC’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and other major events throughout the year.
“It’s the greatest job in the world for me, being retired,” Stevens said. “So many retired athletes talk about the depression they go through when they step away from the game. I sort of prepared myself for it. Here, I have the best of both worlds. I get to cover the biggest races run here in the U.S. – and also in Europe – that I’ve been a part of.”
Stevens said he enjoys working on live television for some of the same reasons that he got a thrill riding in the races he now covers.
“When you’re doing live TV, it's very similar to riding a horse race. You’re out there and if you make a mistake, everyone sees or hears it,” he said. “I like the adrenaline rush of it, I like the excitement. I like talking about what I love to be a part of. I go to the jocks’ room and see all my old buddies. I’m still a big part of it, but it's in a different capacity now.”
He also noted that he hopes his role as a face of the sport, as well as the ability to explain things from a unique perspective, can help initiate new fans into the world of racing.
“I can hopefully help the layman who doesn’t understand the sport so well put things in perspective,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Stevens has appeared on camera. He got rave reviews for his portrayal of jockey George Woolf in the 2003 Academy Award-nominated film “Seabiscuit,” acting alongside stars such as Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks and Jeff Bridges in the story of the Depression-era racehorse.
“I loved the acting,” Stevens said. “I didn't go looking for Seabiscuit; it sort of found me. I didn’t expect to ever do any acting. I loved what I did and the people I worked with. It was like riding in the Derby the first time you’ve ever stepped on the racetrack.”
Stevens also guest starred in a 2006 episode of the ABC Family series “Wildfire” and appeared as himself on an episode of Animal Planet’s reality TV series “Jockeys” last year. Stevens was recently cast in the pilot of HBO’s new racing drama “Luck.” Starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, the show is still in the pilot stages and HBO hasn’t announced an air date, but it is expected to premiere in early 2011. If the series is picked up for a full season, much of the shooting would take place at Santa Anita.
“I’m not going to say a whole lot about it, other than the racing world is going to enjoy it and I’m very, very excited about it,” Stevens said. “I’ve got a great role. I’m just looking forward to working with all the cast and crew. I think a lot of people are going to be able to put their hands around it whether they’re from the racing world or not.”
Many jockeys turn to television analysis or training once they retire from the saddle. Stevens has indeed done both. Although he eventually made a comeback, Stevens retired for just under a year at the end of the 1999 season, during which time he served as an assistant trainer to Alex Hassinger of the Thoroughbred Corporation. Last year, he decided to open his own stable, based out of Santa Anita.
“I was raised the son of a trainer. I’ve been around horses all my life. I started riding professionally when I was 16, but I was a professional jockey, not a professional trainer,” Stevens said. “I thought I knew everything about the training end of it – until I found out that I didn’t.”
Stevens had served as an advisor for IEAH Stables – best known as the ownership group behind Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown – for a few years. When he turned to training, they indeed supported him by sending a few horses to his string. Among them was the classy turf mare Diamondrella, who Stevens saddled to a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes last November at Hollywood Park.
But despite having mild success early on that could have led to an expansion of his stable, Stevens decided it wasn’t the right time to pursue a training career because of the various time commitments involved. He and his wife, Angie, welcomed a daughter, Madison, to the family in June 2009. Stevens, who also has four children from a previous marriage, said that NBC’s decision to broadcast additional prep races leading up to this year’s Kentucky Derby also put a strain on his schedule. Ultimately, he disbanded his stable in early 2010.
“At the end of the day I was killing myself,” Stevens said. “I was pretty much living at the racetrack. I wasn’t spending a whole lot of time at home. My number one job is TV at this point in time. I love it, I love the people I work with, I love getting our sport out there. I had too many irons in the fire.”
But Stevens, who still occasionally breezes horses in the mornings, says a return to training may be in the cards down the road.
“Let’s put it this way, when I stopped training I didn’t sell all my equipment, I kept it,” he said. “I expect fully to pursue it again someday. I can’t say when that will be.”
More than four years after hanging up his tack, the former jockey is thrilled with where life – and his new role within the sport of racing – has taken him.
“There were people taking bets,” Stevens said. “My old agent Ron Anderson was taking over-unders on how long it would be (until Stevens returned to racing). A lot of people didn’t think I could make it a year. I’m very busy. I’m a guy who has to stay busy all the time. I enjoy what I’m doing. For whatever reason, I keep getting new challenges in front of me. I’m very blessed with the opportunities that have come along. It's not retired – it’s the second half of my life.”