Attitude Is Everything - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the May 25, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell In the days leading up to the May 18 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), jockey Gary Stevens had been wrestling with a lot of doubts. His return to race-riding after a seven-year hiatus had hit a slump, and he began to wonder if perhaps he couldn’t compete at racing’s highest level at age 50.

Stevens picked up three wins during the Keeneland spring meet, which was OK considering it is a short boutique meet of high-quality competition. But since Keeneland’s meet ended April 26, the rider hadn’t had a win.

“I haven’t had a lot of opportunities in the right places,” Stevens said. “Oxbow, two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby, was one of those horses that could really go out and perform for me.”

Then Oxbow, though second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with a quarter-mile to go, finished sixth.

“I began to think, ‘Maybe my business is lacking. Maybe this was a mistake.’ I’ve been questioning myself,” Stevens said. “When riders go through slumps, I don’t care if you are 50 years old or 16 years old, you start changing the stirrups on your saddle and this and that.”

On Preakness day Stevens said he stopped worrying about his equipment and readjusted his thinking.

“I told myself, if it is meant to be, it is not going to matter where your stirrups are; it matters the kind of horse you’re riding,” he told himself.

Stevens got his renewed faith tested early. In his first mount of the day on Red Wings in the James W. Murphy Stakes, his mount bobbled entering the first turn and had to be pulled up. He walked off the course without finishing the race.

Then came the Longines Dixie Stakes (gr. IIT) in which Stevens was riding 24-1 shot Skyring for D. Wayne Lukas and Calumet Farm, the trainer and owner, respectively, of Oxbow.

That race would foreshadow how the Preakness would unfold an hour later. Stevens grabbed an early lead with the son of English Channel, took the field through modest fractions of :24.45, :48.32, and a mile in 1:35.79, and never saw the backside of another horse.

“You don’t know what kind of boost that gave me going into the Preakness, and it was for Wayne Lukas,” Stevens said. “I thought to myself, ‘Man, it doesn’t matter with this guy what the form looks like, you go out with confidence and you can throw an upset.’ After I got legged up, I couldn’t have had more confidence. One race can really boost your spirits.”

Clearly, Skyring and, more importantly, Lukas’ confidence in Stevens went a long way toward putting Stevens in a winning frame of mind for Pimlico’s main event.

“I left it up to Gary,” Lukas said after the Preakness. “I think we can plan this thing, we can talk about it, we can talk about strategy, but once that gate is open, they have to make decisions, and Gary made some great ones.”

At 77 years old, Lukas’ steadfast belief in jumping into every day with a positive attitude is inspiring and infectious.

“Your attitude is a choice, and it is the most important decision you make every day,” Lukas said in 2004 while giving the keynote address for the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “You make it early and make it the right choice.”

Even in dealing with his own slump—13 years since a win in any of the Triple Crown races (the last coming in the 2000 Belmont Stakes, gr. I, with Commendable)—it is clear Lukas never allowed himself to think success wouldn’t return. With hard work and the right horse, he said, anything is possible.

“The thing about it is you get up every day and look for that one that you maybe can do something with,” Lukas said. “As long as we’ve got something to work with, we’re going to be around. I think that we’re not through by a long way here. I feel like we can get up and maybe get another one someplace down the line.”

A remarkable statement, considering Lukas now holds a record 14 wins in Triple Crown races-—four Kentucky Derbys, now six Preaknesses, and four Belmonts.

But with the right attitude, anything is possible. Just ask Lukas.

“The most important thing is to have a complete, unquestionable passion for the industry...then dedicate yourself completely,” he said. 

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