Sean’s Top 10: The Return

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Am I still working on this? Sorry, the Top 10 for 2013 was meant to be finished at Christmas, at the latest New Year’s Day. OK, I’m now aiming for February 1. Joe and Tom described such eloquent memories – and with such alacrity – that I decided to back off and let them dance. Then return with big moments and big words when the cupboard was bare. It’s 7 degrees outside, racing is cancelled, the cupboard seems bare.

Number 5. Gary Stevens. Easily the story of the year – in a year of stories – the Hall of Fame jockey returned after seven years away and won big races all year. The Preakness, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, the Breeders’ Cup Classic… The latter being the best for me, watching him encourage Mucho Macho Man in the final sixteenth of a mile, flicking his whip rather than dropping the anvil, at the most critical moment, with millions on the line ­- after telling me that’s what he was going to do a month earlier. Epic.

It was another gifted performance by a gifted athlete. Actually, that description worked the first time around. Gifted, indeed. He was strong and efficient, a machine, then his body broke down and his mind went with it. He called it burn out. Now, at 50, he’s still gifted but it’s different. So different. His success comes from composure rather than pressure, understanding the nuances of the race and the horse, he is the subtle tactician, the thinker. Watch his finish in the final strides of the 1997 Kentucky Derby on Silver Charm and watch his final strides on Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He’s better now.

I interviewed Stevens in May about his comeback. I wound up with 2,889 words. I just listened and typed.

Here are some excerpts…

“Deep down inside I was lying to myself. I told everybody, including myself, ‘I’m done. I’m done.’ I had eight trunks full of tack in my garage. I had told my wife, ‘No, you can’t get rid of that. No, you can’t get rid of that.’ In the back of my mind, I was saying, you never know. Never say never.

I was drinking entirely way too much. Too much time on my hands. I’m not on any bandwagon or anything else, but I think it’s helped me. If I feel like having a beer, I’ll have a beer, but I’m not going to do what I had done in the past. I’m not 25 years old, even 35 years old, where I can go out and party and feel great the next day, because you don’t. You wake up, like ‘Why did I do that?’ Yeah, you can function, but do you want to function at the highest level or do you just want to function? I want to function at a high level. If I was going to put myself through this thing and be as hard on myself as I knew I was going to have to be, I was going to be a fitness level where I could come back.

“I’m not going to BS you, I felt that pressure when I came back, you know when you come back from an injury, you feel like you’ve got to prove yourself all over again. I think the longest I’d been out, except for that one retirement, was 3 ½ months, no matter what the injury was, you always came back with a bit of pressure, ‘Hey, I’ve got to show them that I’m not hurting, I’m still game, I’ll go through those holes and ride my race and do what I did when I was a kid.’ It was no different this time around, maybe more so, because I’m in the Hall of Fame and people are saying, ‘What is this guy doing? Why is he coming back?’ So, I put a lot of pressure on myself for this comeback.

“I’m surprised by the respect level, you can tell, it’s cool. You could tell the young riders were skeptical, a lot of guys didn’t know who the hell I was except for my name but they’re like, ‘Let’s see what this old bastard can do.’ The racing hasn’t changed. Not for me. I’m seeing things in slow motion again, which is great, that’ll come and go because I know this game goes in cycles, to stay mentally focused year round is tough to do. It took a while for that to come back and it’s just coming back, but it’s there.

“There are critics. In this game, you have to have a thick skin. I think everybody was skeptical when I came back but when they all saw how serious I was taking it. Even in this jocks’ room, you’re not friends with everybody, you put up with people because you have to, it’s a small room here. It’s a small room in every jocks’ room in the world.

“I’m more appreciative at this age, then I ever was, for the opportunities given to me. I’m not going to lie to you, I’d love to win another Kentucky Derby. I’d love to win another Breeders’ Cup. I’d love to win a Breeders’ Cup Classic, been second in it a bunch of times, that’s unfinished business.”

Six months later, Stevens finished it, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic with precision and composure – traits mastered the second time up the mountain.

– Read Sean’s column about the Breeders’ Cup.

– Read Sean’s column about talking to Stevens in September.