My 2013 Sportsman nominee: Jockey Gary Stevens
Sports Illustrated announced its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16, 2013. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
Back in 2001, when he was 38, Gary Stevens was asked if he could envision himself riding thoroughbreds for as long as Laffit Pincay, who was then one of the country's leading jockeys at the advanced age of 54. "Doing this at 54?" Stevens responded. "I doubt I'll be doing this at 45."
Stevens had a point. Few jobs in sports are more arduous, or more perilous, than a jockey's. Most riders, including Stevens, follow what many would consider starvation diets to keep their weight below 116 pounds. The normal course of their duties has them storming along in traffic at 35 mph with unpredictable, 1,000-pound thoroughbreds between their knees -- with an ambulance trailing not far behind. To ride any longer than you absolutely had to, you'd have to really love it.
And so it is with Stevens -- my nomination for Sportsman of the Year -- who came out of a seven-year retirement last January to author one of the greatest seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Among the 50-year-old rider's 66 victories so far in 2013 are 17 in graded stakes races, including the Preakness, aboard Oxbow, the Breeders' Cup Distaff, on Beholder, and the Breeders' Cup Classic, atop Mucho Macho Man. Stevens' $11,395,908 in winnings is good for 12th on this year's money list even though his 369 starts are the fewest of any rider in the top 46. But Stevens, renowned by trainers for his intelligence and patience in the saddle, didn't come back for the money. "I don't think it's different than any other athlete," he said in June before riding Oxbow to a second-place finish in the Belmont. "You don't realize how good things are, how sweet you got it, and then it's gone."
Stevens had already come out of retirement once before. On Dec. 26, 1999, citing arthritis in his knees, a condition which kept him in almost constant pain, he walked away from racing and spent the next 10 months working as an assistant trainer and dabbling as a jockey agent. But he missed the game, and on Oct. 4, 2000, he returned to the Sport of Kings, saying that his knees felt much better after nearly a year of rest. At 37, he was already a Hall of Famer, having won six Triple Crown and seven Breeders' Cup races in a distinguished 21-year career.
It's not as if Stevens couldn't think of something he'd rather be doing than risking life and limb atop a horse running at top speed. In 2005, after one more Breeders' Cup and two more Triple Crown victories -- as well as increasing knee pain and a series of injuries that included a collapsed lung suffered in an '03 spill -- he retired again to become a racing analyst for NBC and TVG (he moved to HRTV in '08). He also wanted to pursue an acting career that had taken off two years earlier when the ruggedly handsome, blue-eyed Stevens portrayed jockey George Woolf in the hit movie Seabiscuit. His natural performance won critical praise.
In 2011, Stevens landed a role on the HBO series Luck, playing a jockey, Ronnie Jenkins, with drug and alcohol problems. The part was far more complex than anything Stevens had done in Seabiscuit, but it was also familiar to him. Writer David Milch, a racing fan and a friend of Stevens', had based the character on the jockey. "David knows I've had demons in the past," Stevens told The New York Times, adding that he was excited to be acting again. "I saw my future five years and beyond -- my new career. It was what I had been dreaming about."
And then it was over. HBO canceled Luck in March 2012 after three horses died in production. Stevens has said that the abrupt end of the star-crossed show is the reason he returned to riding. "Subconsciously, I felt there was unfinished business, for [Ronnie Jenkins] and for me," he told the Los Angeles Times in June. To say the least. Stevens fell into depression and began drinking too much. His wife, Angie, began to encourage him to return to riding. "I felt like I was more for it than he was," she said. "I was living with a monster ... Not a monster. But he was miserable."
Late last year, Stevens began to work out at Pro Sports, a Seattle health club. He lost 25 pounds and eight percent of his body fat. He built up his leg muscles to take pressure off his knees. He also began seeing a psychotherapist. "There was a lot I had to get off my chest," he said. And he quit drinking. "That's been a big change," he told the Daily Racing Form. "I think a lot of people will be surprised at the change. They may not like a completely sober Gary Stevens. I'm an intense person, and I'll wear my heart on my sleeve. Maybe even more so."
Stevens has no timetable for how long his comeback will last. He says he feels great, and because of his knee problems he is trying to be judicious about how often he rides. He is certain of only one thing. "I won't announce retirement again,' he said. "It's embarrassing to keep coming out of retirement. It could be this week; it could be whenever. If my knee is burning, I'll tell people I'm taking a leave of absence and leave it at that."
Coming out of retirement might be embarrassing for Stevens, but there can be little doubt that he does it well. And he has certainly never done it this well. It hardly matters how long this comeback lasts. Stevens has shown the world that not only is he as good as ever, but he is even better than before.