When Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens announced he was pulling a Brett Favre and coming out of retirement after a seven-year hiatus at the beginning of the year, the rumor mill began to flow.
Was he broke? Was he crazy? Surely at 50 years old, he must have lost a step.
He was none of those things. The ultracompetitive Stevens was back with a vengeance and remarkably at the top of his game. He rode his first race back on January 6 and was back in the winner's circle on January 12.
It was from that point onward that the comeback of the ages began to take shape.
After a fierce effort in the Kentucky Derby aboard the gallant Oxbow to finish sixth, it was clear that Stevens meant business. The pair roared back in the Preakness Stakes and teamed up with fellow old-timer D. Wayne Lukas to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown. In doing so, Stevens became the oldest jockey to win the Preakness and defeated riders literally half his age.
The story does not even come close to ending there.
Though winning the Preakness was a major achievement, Stevens remained hard at work rebuilding his reputation and building business on the West Coast. He added stakes win after stakes win to his already lustrous resume, reaffirming himself as one of the best jockeys in the world.
Despite all of his remarkable achievements, there was one trophy missing from his collection—the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Throughout his tremendous career, Stevens has had the fortune to ride some of the all-time great horses in the sport. He has been victorious in nine separate Triple Crown races, including just narrowly missing winning the entire thing aboard the indomitable Silver Charm. It was on that gray Bob Baffert-trained runner that he he won the Dubai World Cup as well.
In the 1998 Classic, Stevens suffered a gut-wrenching defeat aboard his Kentucky Derby champion. Silver Charm notoriously liked to wait on horses and engage in a battle to the wire, so when the European star Swain drew up alongside them, Stevens allowed Silver Charm to focus on him. In doing so, the pair drifted to the middle of the track, allowing Awesome Again to swoop through and steal the show.
Going into the 2013 Breeders' Cup, Stevens had eight wins in various Breeders' Cup races to his credit. Looking through his resume is like looking at a who's who of the Breeders' Cup in the 1990s. Silverbulletday, Escena, Da Hoss and others were genuine stars. But through all of his accomplishments, the Breeders' Cup Classic would be the exclamation point on his Hall of Fame career.
Stevens gave a preview of what to expect on Breeders' Cup day on September 28 at Santa Anita, the home of the 30th Breeders' Cup. He guided reigning juvenile champion Beholder to a front-running victory in the Zenyatta Stakes (G1) for the popular conditioner Richard Mandella. He also teamed up with Kathy Ritvo to annihilate the field of the Awesome Again Stakes (G1) with Mucho Macho Man.
Fast-forward to November 1. On a track with an obvious speed bias and up against the top fillies and mares in the country, Stevens outwits his fellow riders and gets his speedy filly to relax and rate off of the lead. Beholder delivered handily and proved why Stevens is one of the all-time great riders. His age winds up being an advantage, not an obstacle. While he may not be the youngest rider out there, he is the smartest.
His day on Breeders' Cup Saturday did not begin quite as smoothly. Though he finished first aboard the promising filly She's a Tiger in the Juvenile Fillies, he wound up disqualified for bumping his rival in the stretch.
As the gates opened for the Breeders' Cup Classic, the stars seemed to align for Stevens. He was able to get the massive colt to settle in just behind the front-runners, and when he asked him, Mucho Macho Man answered strongly. Stevens confidently rode him to the lead, all the while trying to preserve as much as he could for the inevitable onslaught of horses from off the pace.
Stevens and Mucho Macho Man held on, earning the victory in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic by a nose over a valiant Will Take Charge, and in doing so, he finally got to take home the missing piece from his collection of marquee wins.
At 50 years old, Stevens is enjoying a renaissance, and the best may yet be to come.