x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dubai World Cup: After seven-year hiatus, jockey Gary Stevens is back in the saddle

The 50-year-old American jockey Gary Stevens was in the winner's circle at Meydan Racecourse in 1998 and hopes to recapture that magic aboard Dullahan and Little Mike on Saturday, writes Geoffrey Riddle.

Jockey Gary Stevens, a 50-year-old American jockey, will race two horses at the Dubai World Cup at the Meydan Racecourse on Saturday. Jaime Puebla / The National
Jockey Gary Stevens, a 50-year-old American jockey, will race two horses at the Dubai World Cup at the Meydan Racecourse on Saturday. Jaime Puebla / The National

When Gary Stevens rode Silver Charm to victory in the 1998 Emirates Dubai World Cup, Mickael Barzalona was six years old.

Wind forward to Saturday and the two jockeys will line up against each other at Meydan Racecourse, duelling for the right to become the third rider to win the world's richest race more than once and to take home a portion of the US$10 million (Dh36.7m) purse on offer.

Where the 21-year-old Barzalona's career has been meteoric, having been welcomed into the Godolphin fold last season before winning the 2012 race, Stevens's second coming has been equally so.

The 50-year-old resumed race riding in January following a seven-year absence from the saddle.

When he gave up due to a troubling knee injury and general malaise, it was to a glittering backdrop of three Kentucky Derbies, eight Breeders' Cup titles and 5,000 victories that had taken him to virtually every major racing jurisdiction on the planet.

And yet, the seven-year itch claimed him, and like a musketeer in an Alexandre Dumas novel, Stevens dusted off his kit and got back into the saddle.

"I always thought sub-consciously I would come back," Stevens said at Meydan on Thursday. "People ask why I came back and the answer is, because I could.

"In my storage garage, I had all these trunks and my equipment was in there. I had given most of the stuff to charity but the most important things I kept.

"I knew it was going to be difficult on my wife, who was relieved when I retired. I wasn't miserable, but there was just something lacking."

If Stevens's wife found the decision to return to racing a tough one to swallow, spare a thought for the jockey's mother.

Mama Stevens is 71. Her eldest son, Scott, is also a jockey who plies his trade at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona.

"Two things delayed my comeback more than anything," Stevens continues. "My daughter, Madison, who is three-and-a-half, and my mother. She cannot watch a race on television. She listens to my dad's commentary.

"If you are a jockey, it is not a question of if you are going to fall, but when you are going to fall. I know it is going to happen, but I don't know when it will happen, or how bad it will, be but I'm ready for it."

Almost as a response to the danger lying in wait to claim him, Stevens has given himself five years to squeeze the most out of his second coming. His agent, Craig O'Brien, has been tasked with finding him winners and the pair have teamed up to devastating effect so far.

Stevens has won 13 races from 91 mounts, according to Equibase. His strike-rate of 14 per cent may not send racing fans into rapture, but with over $1m in earnings, Stevens probably does not care.

One man who did take notice of Stevens's strike-rate, however, was Jerry Crawford, who as the managing partner of the Donegal Racing syndicate was so impressed by the jockey that he signed him up on a retainer in the lead-up to Dubai World Cup week.

Stevens will ride Dullahan in the World Cup for Crawford's syndicate, and Little Mike in the Dubai Duty Free for Dale Romans, who trains the two horses.

"We watched every tape of every race since Gary's comeback," Crawford said Thursday. "He's riding amazingly. He's a great team player and is the best communicator I have ever worked with.

"He calls every day, asking: 'What about if we do this, would it be better if we did that.' We are very lucky."

Watching re-runs of races is clearly the vogue. Before flying to Dubai, Graham Motion and Joel Rosario watched repeatedly all three Dubai World Cups staged at Meydan Racecourse in preparation for Animal Kingdom's run in the race.

And Stevens feels he has become a far better rider for doing the same. During his temporary dotage, Stevens worked as an analyst for the American television outlet HRTV. He also did his research when practising for his role as jockey George Woolf in the 2003 film Seabiscuit.

"I have watched more races in the past seven years than at any point in my career," Stevens said. "I used to do a lot of homework and was prepared to ride any race, anywhere, any time.

"There were some horses that I had never laid eyes on before. That experience helped me prepare for a night like Saturday and learn the tendencies of other riders.

"A lot of the guys I'll be riding against probably don't know who I was. Oddly enough, I know how they ride."

Stevens will have to be at his vintage best on Saturday. Dullahan has secured all three of his Grade 1 victories on synthetic tracks around two turns, which mirrors exactly the challenge set before him.

Yet Romans stated this week that Dullahan is not a natural pace-setter, and as the Pacific Classic winner is set to break from gate three, there is every chance that he could get stuck on the rail and hemmed in at a crucial stage as the runners swing for home.

"Mentally I am thinking much more clearly than for the last five years," Stevens said. "When I go into the stalls during a race, my mind is clear.

"As a rider I like to have Plan A, B, C, D and probably E.

"I'll match myself with anybody in the last few furlongs, as I love a battle.

"They have employed me to extricate him out of that position. That's my job. Of course, I cannot guarantee that I can do that."

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE