Marathon Man - By Evan Hammonds

Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens guided 2-year-old King of Speed up the hedge to win the Sept. 2 Del Mar Juvenile Turf Stakes. Similar scenes had been played out before…99 times, as a matter of fact, as the veteran rider hit the century mark in stakes wins at the track where the “turf meets the surf.”

That’s no small feat, considering the brevity of the Del Mar meet and that Stevens won his first stakes at Del Mar 33 summers ago as a 22-year-old relative newcomer to the Southern California circuit. Only Chris McCarron and Corey Nakatani have more stakes wins at the seaside track.

“Before the meet one of the media guys told me I was a couple of wins away,” Stevens said Labor Day, the final day of the 2018 Del Mar stand. “That’s pretty cool. I’ve had a lot of records and milestones in my career. I didn’t come into this meet even knowing I was close to 100, so to be able to get that accomplished, I’m proud of it.”

Riding with the confidence, verve, and elan of a much younger rider, the “senior” Stevens realizes whom he squares off against every day in Del Mar. Flavien Prat and Drayden Van Dyke battled for the top spot on the rider’s standings during the meet, and Hall of Famers Mike Smith and Kent Desormeaux still prowl the jock’s room.

Decades ago, however, it was “a ‘Who’s Who’ of racing. It was McCarron, Delahoussaye, Shoemaker, Pincay, McHargue, Toro, PVal (Pat Valenzuela)…the list went on and on,” Stevens said.

“I worked hard and in 1985—that was my first full season in Southern California—I had a lot of good business,” he continued. “I was riding for Laz Barrera, Eddie Gregson. As a matter of fact, Eddie was my first stakes win here way back then on Tsunami Slew in the Eddie Read Handicap (G2T). My business was starting to grow. I was riding for (D. Wayne) Lukas and I had already been riding for Gary Jones. I had a lot of top outfits.”

And that was thanks to agent Ray Kravagna, who brought a young Stevens down from Washington state to the toughest colony in the sport.

“It was tough and those guys made you ride better,” Stevens said. “I was given a chance, and I was able to capitalize on that in a big way.”

Several decades down the road, things have changed.

“You see all kinds of different things, but I see a difference in the trainers more than in the jockeys,” he said. “It’s changed a lot with the big syndicates now as far as the partnerships. Sometimes there are 30-50 partners on a horse. I don’t know how the trainers deal with it, but they do. It can make business difficult.”

Stevens has retired twice from the saddle—one lasting 7 1/2 years—but has returned, with several new body parts—hip and knee replacements. He seems as fit and ready as ever. His mental sharpness remains well-honed, but age can put an asterisk by his name in the program.

“It seemed like the day I turned 50, no kidding, it was like somebody put a stamp next to my name but I don’t feel any different,” he said. “With the knee and the different body parts that caused my retirement in the first place, I actually feel better than I did 15 years ago.”

Gary Stevens was winning stakes at Del Mar way before 15 years ago. While everyone loves the stand, riding at Del Mar can take its toll.

“You work harder during this meet than you do any other meet,” Stevens said. “It’s a pressure-filled meet. The 2-year-olds are coming up. Most of the owners are here for the summer. People are wanting to go out and have dinner and wine and dine and we have to get up and work the next morning. It wears on you now. I can’t wait for the last race to come tonight.

“But, it’s what I love to do. It’s the fire in my life. It’s my passion and my hobby, too. I will be  part of this game for the remainder of my life.”

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