Nearly a quarter century ago, Gary Stevens was an up-and-coming jockey in Southern California, hoping to make his mark on the sport, put a lot of money in the bank and move on to something else as quickly as possible.
A conversation he had with one of horse racing's iconic riders still resonates with Stevens as he gets ready to ride Oxbow in Saturday's 138th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. Given where Stevens has been — including retirement for seven years — it seems almost humorous.
"I remember telling Bill Shoemaker when I was 26 years old that I was going to retire when I was 30, and he just laughed at me," Stevens said Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the lobby of the Baltimore hotel where he and his wife, Angie, are staying this week. "He asked me why, and I said, 'I'm getting tired, I want to have a couple of million dollars in the bank and I'll call it quits.
"He said, 'Mark my words, you won't.' What was Shoe when he quit, 62 or 63, he went another 10 years after Ferdinand. [Laffit] Pincay told me recently, 'If the doctors would let me, I would ride right now.' He's 63 or something and he looks like he could still ride."
Shoemaker was 54 when he rode Ferdinand to victory in the 1986 Kentucky Derby, and remains the oldest ever to win a Triple Crown race. It will take a lot for Stevens to do the same in the Preakness, though Oxbow's performance for the first mile at Churchill Downs gives his 50-year-old Hall of Fame jockey and 77-year-old Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, some hope of stopping heavy favorite Orb.
That Stevens is even back in the saddle again is an even bigger upset.
After bad knees that had undergone 13 operations and other aching surgically-repaired parts forced Stevens to quit in 2005, the eight-time Triple Crown race winner settled into a comfortable life with his second wife, Angie. They had a daughter nearly four years ago, adding to the four kids Stevens had in his first marriage. He became a well-respected racing analyst for HRTV and NBC.
But what gave Stevens the biggest rush — one he admittedly had missed after he stopped riding — was acting.
Having already played legendary jockey George Woolf in the 2002 hit movie "Seabiscuit", Stevens stayed in character when he was hired in the role of veteran jockey Ronnie Jenkins in the HBO series "Luck" in 2011. Though the preview was well-received and a second season was quickly signed, the show was abruptly canceled after reportedly three horses died on the set.
"I had big plans, we all had big plans, I had a five-season contract with them and my role was growing," Stevens said. "It was a shock, a disappointment."
Stevens said that going on the set playing opposite actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte "was almost like going into the jock's room, I was the new kid on the block." Stevens compared the pressure of acting to that he has experienced in racing.
"It kind of gave me my adrenalin fix," Stevens said. "I do like that pressure. I say I don't put pressure on myself, I guess in a sense I do. The Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont, the Breeders Cup races, those are when you want to shine. When you're in front of a camera, that's when you want to shine as well. You don't want to be the reason for the failure of a scene and hear, 'Take one, take two, take three.'"
Angie Stevens, who met her future husband while working as a production assistant on "Seabiscuit", said that he was happy playing a jockey on television but missed doing it for real.
"He wanted to be out there for years, I joke that he started thinking it the day he retired," Angie Stevens said. "He became really serious about it last year. He was constantly saying, 'I want to be riding, I feel like I can ride so much better than these guys.' His family and myself told him, 'Go do it, you have the luxury to do it so why aren't you?"
Fellow Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, who retired at age 47, said that he wasn't totally surprised by Stevens' comeback.
"He's an incredibly competitive individual and I'm sure there were plenty of times when he was sitting on the set at HRTV or NBC and he was watching some rather poor rides out there, scratching his head and wondering 'Man, if I was on that horse, I wouldn't have done that'," McCarron said. "That's the way I've felt [working as an analyst]."
With the help of a fitness and nutrition program and working with a trainer Clark Masterson, Stevens went from a noticeably soft 140 pounds to a rock-hard 114.
"Everyone had commented when I quit how it was good to see me get some meat on me, but I didn't like the way I felt, I was so sluggish," Stevens said. "There were some days toward the end when I was still riding when I had to go in the sauna and pull some weight off. It's a big load off knowing that I don't have to beat myself up before I ride my races."
The results since Stevens returned have been admittedly mixed. Lukas was critical of Stevens' ride in the Arkansas Derby when Oxbow finished fifth after being dead-last for much of the race. Prior to the Derby, Lucas told reporters in Louisville that it was a performance Stevens, who has won nearly 5,000 races in his career, "won't be showing to his grandchildren."
Oxbow's performance in the Derby was a little more promising. Stalking speed horse Palace Malice, was near the lead with a quarter-mile left but faded down the stretch to finish sixth. It prompted Lukas to say about Stevens earlier this week at Pimlico, "I'm very comfortable there [with Stevens]. We've got karma together and we've had good luck doing this and he's gotten to know the horse a little better throughout the last two weeks."
If Oxbow can pull off the upset, Stevens would become the oldest jockey ever to win the Preakness.
Not that he think much about his age.
"To me, 50 [now] is the new 30," Stevens said.