LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Millennium Wind and Point Given burst from the starting gate tomorrow in the 127th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, they'll carry jockeys who already have beaten the odds.
That Laffit Pincay Jr. will be aboard Millennium Wind and Gary Stevens aboard Point Given is a testament to the riders' determination, discipline and addictive love of competition.
Three years ago, Pincay's career hit the skids. He considered moving his tack from southern California to northern California or even Washington, where racing is minor-league.
Two years ago, Stevens retired. The pain in his knees had become so intense that he walked away from the job he adored.
But now, the jockeys could cap their comebacks with one of the greatest prizes in sports - the Kentucky Derby. Pincay has already won one, and Stevens has won three. Neither jockey believed a couple of years ago that another Derby would be within their reach.
"If someone had told me at this point last year that I was going to be sitting in this position, riding Point Given, I would have thought they were completely crazy," Stevens said. "I'm just excited to come back riding, and come back riding the caliber of horses that I'm riding right now."
Stevens, 38, retired in late 1999 because of degenerative arthritis in his knees. He continued working with horses as the assistant trainer for The Thoroughbred Corp., the racing stable of the Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed Salman. (The Thoroughbred Corp. owns Point Given.)
But Stevens wasn't happy in the barn.
"I guess I'm an adrenalin nut," Stevens said. "I love the thrill of competing and winning. I like the feeling it gives me. I wasn't able to get my fix training horses."
His knees began feeling better - a combination of rest and a glucosamine-chondroitin medication that improves joint cartilage. And he began feeling the itch to ride again.
He had already accomplished enough to earn distinction as one of greatest jockeys of all time.
In 1993 he became the youngest rider whose mounts had earned $100 million in purses. He won seven Breeders' Cup races and seven Santa Anita Derbies. He won the Dubai World Cup with Silver Charm. In 1997 he was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame.
His record in Triple Crown races was exemplary: three Kentucky Derby victories (Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997), one Preakness victory (Silver Charm in 1997) and two Belmont victories (Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Victory Gallop in 1998).
Since returning to the saddle last fall (and already winning another Breeders' Cup race and another Santa Anita Derby), Stevens has reduced his workload. He rides fewer lower-level races during the week and focuses on the richer races on the weekend.
"I'm just trying to accept every day as it is," Stevens said. "I don't know whether I'll be riding five years or five weeks from now, but every day I get to ride is a blessing for me."
Asked about Point Given's chances in the Derby, Stevens said: "I don't need to say anything about this horse. People who have seen him run know that he's special.
"This horse has got all the tools. The main thing we're going to need is racing luck and the right trip. I think this horse is good enough, so it boils down to me."
If Point Given is going to carry Stevens into the Derby winner's circle, he will likely have to overtake Millennium Wind. Under Pincay, Millennium Wind likely will contest the early lead, while Point Given will launch his bid from farther back in the pack.
Stevens said he is fully aware of who will be piloting Millennium Wind.
"Laffit's a freak of nature," Stevens said of Pincay, 54. "He takes great care of himself. For him to be doing what he's doing at the level he's doing it, well, that's incredible."
Pincay is the winningest jockey in the history of the sport. On Dec. 10, 1999, he rode winner No. 8,834 at Hollywood Park, surpassing the mark of 8,833 established by Bill Shoemaker. As of Wednesday, Pincay has won 9,130 races.
Even though he has won six Eclipse awards, more than any other human, Pincay contemplated three years ago leaving the major circuit of southern California tracks. His skills seemed to be diminishing. Trainers were tapping younger jockeys to ride their good horses.
But Pincay, after a career-long struggle with weight, did something he had done countless times before: He changed his diet. He continued limiting his daily calorie intake to 850, but he began eating fruit-oranges, apples, blueberries, any fruit with fiber.
"Right away, I started feeling a difference in my riding, in my strength," Pincay said. "I started winning races. I started working harder. I felt as if I could go out there and compete against anybody."
Pincay's discipline with food is legendary. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas tells the story of traveling with Pincay on a plane. The meals came. Lukas took his. Pincay said no thanks.
Pincay reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny ball of plastic. He unwrapped the plastic and produced one peanut. He ate half - and then wrapped up the other half and put it back into his pocket.
"I've just got to watch my calories," Pincay said. "That's the only way I can keep my weight down. I wasn't born to be small, you know. I was born to weigh 145, 150 pounds." Pincay stands 5 feet 1 and weighs 116 pounds. How can he be so disciplined?
"I love to ride," he said. "I love the competition. I love to be out there trying to win a race. And what else could I do that I enjoy? So I sacrifice myself in the way I eat so I can ride."
At the recently concluded meet at Santa Anita Park, Pincay at 54 topped the jockey standings. He became the oldest jockey to win a riding title at that meet, breaking his own record set when he was 42.
David Hofmans, who trains Millennium Wind, said that Pincay is riding as well as he ever has.
"To bring him here with this chance makes me feel wonderful," Hofmans said. "He is an absolute gentleman. He doesn't think he's a special person. He's humble. He has time for everybody. He's someone children and young adults can look up to."
Pincay has won one Kentucky Derby (Swale in 1984) despite riding in the race 19 times. (He has also won three consecutive Belmonts.) Most of his Derby mounts have been long shots. He said he believes Millennium Wind has the potential to become "any kind of horse" and provide him his second Derby triumph.
"This is the best race in the world," Pincay said. "I did it once, and the feeling was unbelievable. I would love to have that feeling again."
What: First leg of horse racing's Triple Crown
When: Tomorrow, 6:04 p.m. post
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
Distance: 1 1/4 miles
Purse: $1 million
TV: Chs. 11, 4