LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two months shy of his 50th birthday, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens is launching a comeback this weekend at Santa Anita.
“My passion is still there,” Stevens said Thursday in announcing his return after a seven-year retirement. “Or I should say my passion has come back. I’ve worked a couple of very good horses in the morning at Santa Anita that kind of made the hair stand up on my neck and I haven’t felt that in a long time.”
Stevens’ first race will be Sunday at Santa Anita, with his lone mount in a $50,000 claiming race on a horse named Jebrica.
“I’m going to be selective in what I ride and if that means not riding at all or upsetting people then so be it,” he said. “I didn’t come back to ride five days a week and ride nine races a day. I came back to ride some quality horses with hopefully some good futures.”
He retired in November 2005 after battling knee pain that had him downing anti-inflammatories every day for the last 15 years of his career.
“Knees, they were never 100 percent, I’ll tell you, but compared to my last five years of riding they’re about 120 percent now,” Stevens said, adding that the medications damaged his liver. “Fortunately, the liver is able to repair itself and I’m healthy.”
Stevens said he’s been working with a personal trainer and attended a program in Bellevue, Wash., that taught him how to eat a diet featuring high-protein and carbohydrates along with healthy fats. In retirement, his weight reached 146 pounds, but now Stevens said he’s “down to 119 without trying.”
“I’m sleeping well, no medications,” he said.
Stevens’ wife, Angie Athayde, said, “He cut out smoking, drinking, sugar. He went really hard-core.”
She and the couple’s young daughter visited Stevens in Washington state over Thanksgiving, where food and drink were in abundance.
“I said, ‘Are you OK? They’re drinking,’” she said of the get-together. “He said, ‘It’s not the drinking. It’s the pie.’”
Athayde said she’s excited for him to resume riding.
“It’s long overdue,” she said. “He’s been so miserable not riding. I told him, ‘You’ve got to get back on a horse.’”
Stevens has been working as a racing commentator for HRTV on weekends and for NBC Sports during the Triple Crown series, and he said he’ll continue in those jobs while juggling his riding commitments.
The TV work provides a fallback plan if his comeback is thwarted by his knees.
“I don’t know that that pain won’t come back. Only time will tell,” Stevens said.
Then there’s the danger involved in riding 1,200-pound thoroughbreds going 40 mph in a race.
“Anything can happen at any time,” he said. “I know being out there it’s not a question of if I’m going to hit the ground, it’s when. But I’m probably fitter than I’ve been. I know I’ll able to handle the blow. The risk is worth the reward at this point.”
For now, Stevens is working without an agent, although he indicated he may have one soon. He said he’s looking forward to riding a few horses in particular, although he declined to provide their names.
In addition to his TV duties, Stevens has worked as a jockey agent, opened his own racing stable, and done some acting. He played jockey George Woolf in “Seabiscuit” and played a down-on-his-luck jockey in the HBO racing series “Luck” that was cancelled after a brief run last year.
Stevens won 4,888 races and more than $221 million in purses during a career that began in 1979 at Les Bois Park in Boise, Idaho. He’s won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes three times each, and twice won the Preakness Stakes. His other highlights include winning the Santa Anita Derby nine times and eight Breeders’ Cup races.
In 1997, Stevens was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame and the following year he won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding jockey.