PREAKNESS 2013

Gary Stevens' victory at 50 is the granddaddy of comebacks

Jockey came out of retirement and is now the oldest to win the Preakness

This was for every guy who ever had a mid-life crisis and tried to do something nobody thought could be done. Fifty-year-old Jockey Gary Stevens took Oxbow to the front early and never looked back on the way to an upset victory in the 138th Preakness Stakes that was truly one for the ageless.

Oxbow was a 15-1 shot when he left the gate, and he wasn't the one beating the longest odds at Old Hilltop on Saturday. Stevens became the first grandfather ever to win a Triple Crown race, and he did it against a Kentucky Derby winner — Orb — that was considered almost unassailable.

If you want some perspective, boxer George Foreman was only in his mid-40s when he came out of retirement and reclaimed the heavyweight championship with a stunning victory over Michael Moorer in 1994. Jack Nicklaus was 46 when he shocked the world and won his final Masters.

Stevens retired in 2005 after a career that spanned 26 years and included five Triple Crown victories. He won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1996 was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame the following year. He had done it all, so he moved on to a career as as a network television race analyst.

He has never looked his age, but keep in mind that we're talking about a guy who has been around so long, he rode Seabiscuit.

OK, that was when he played George Woolf in the movie, but you get the idea. When you've been on this Earth for a half-century, the last place you're supposed to be is on the back of a 1,200-pound animal traveling 35 mph in traffic. But Stevens got the itch and announced in January that he was getting back in the saddle.

It hadn't exactly been a dream ride until Saturday, but Stevens knew that it was all going to be worth it as Oxbow headed around the far turn and seemed to put the second jewel of the Triple Crown on cruise control.

"I fully expected that Orb or possibly Departing and Will Take Charge would be making a run,'' Stevens said. "But I came into the stretch so loaded. I couldn't believe that no one challenged me going into the far turn, but when no one did, I said, 'I think everybody's in trouble right now.'"

He was right, of course. Orb went off at 3-5 and nobody else was better than 8-1. The betting public was all but certain that the quest for the first Triple Crown since 1978 would continue on to Belmont Park.

Stevens wasn't so sure. Oxbow didn't hit the board in the Kentucky Derby, but he was a lot more competitive than his sixth-place finish might suggest.

"Just to reiterate that he ran a huge race in the Kentucky Derby,'' Stevens said. "I don't consider that we were really part of that fast, early pace. That [Orb] was the leader that day, and we were five lengths off of it. This horse has such a high cruising speed that he'll fool you a little bit. I was very comfortable and he was very comfortable in the Kentucky Derby.

"When I hit the half-mile pole, the leader was out there a ways. Normandy Invasion came up outside of me and that forced me to move possibly a bit earlier than I wanted. ... I won't say that backfired on us, but I learned a heck of a lot about Oxbow, what he did when he was breathing fire a little bit. Everybody else caved in, he didn't."

There was a point during Stevens' comeback when he was almost ready to cave in. There haven't been a lot of victories over the past four months. He won three races during a short meet at Keeneland, but he had not been in the winner's circle since moving on to Churchill Downs.

"I've been really questioning myself, and when riders go through slumps, I don't care if you're 15 years old or 30 years old, you start changing your stirrups on your saddles and this or that," Stevens said. "I told myself, 'You know what, if it's meant to be, it's not going to matter where your stirrups are. It's going to matter what horse you're riding.'"

In this case, it also mattered who was training that horse, since it was also D. Wayne Lukas who gave him his first opportunity to win a Triple Crown race back in 1988.

"Wayne put me on the map,'' Stevens said. "When you win that first classic your phone starts ringing. People want you. That's why I got the call for Oxbow this year dating all the way back to 1988. But I'm not going to lie to you, to win a classic at 50 years old after seven years in retirement ... it doesn't get any better than this. This is super, super sweek, and it happened for the right guy. All the stars were aligned."

Lukas, who said before the race that he chose Stevens because there is no substitute for experience, had no reason to regret that decision.

"We got a Hall of Fame ride,'' he said, "and that was not a surprise."

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.


 

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