Grade I Conversation: Gary Stevens

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What do I miss the most about Saratoga? The conversations. The simple, enlightening, engaging conversations with owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms, fans…all the conversations.

Here’s a conversation with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens about his Saturday rides at Santa Anita. Phone conversation, never the same, but still a conversation.

Talk about rides. Stevens will partner the once-beaten She’s A Tiger in the Grade I Chandelier, 10-time winner Marketing Mix in the Grade I Rodeo Drive, 2-year-old champion Beholder in the Grade I Zenyatta and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Mucho Macho Man in the Awesome Again.

Just think how much better that paragraph would read if all the stakes names weren’t changed…

Stevens hooked up with She’s A Tiger in the Del Mar Debutante. The 2-year-old daughter of Tale Of The Cat rattled on the lead to win by a half-length for trainer Jeff Bonde. Making her first start around two turns, she breaks on the outside in the field of eight.

“I worked her in the morning prior to the race, it was a brilliant workout, whenever I’ve worked horses for the first time, they’ve usually fooled me a little bit. She fooled me that morning, it was a great work, I thought she worked out seven eighths in like 25 and change, she galloped out in 23 and 2, so I was two seconds off. That’s when I know I’m sitting on something exceptional. There was a horse who broke off about five lengths in front of her at the half mile, she was content to sit behind and stayed very relaxed for me, it was very professional.

“She gets wound up going to the gate in the afternoon, she got wound before the Debutante, the pony girl told me that was the best that she had gone to the gate that day. My plan wasn’t to go to the front, but she caught a flyer, she broke a length and a half clear of everybody. We were rolling right along, I thought she was going to tire more than she did. Seven eighths is a difficult distance, especially when I was hooked every step of the way.

“A lot of times, going two turns is easier than seven eighths of a mile because they’ll fill up with air and slow down a little bit around the first turn. Distance is the question, but she showed me more in the workout than in the race itself, I’m fairly confident she’ll get the distance.

“I couldn’t have drawn any better with her, it usually doesn’t turn out that way. She’s quick leaving there and I’ll just try to get her into the first turn as quiet as possible.”

Stevens met Marketing Mix in May, guiding the 5-year-old mare to a head decision in the Grade I Gamely at Hollywood Park. She returned to win the Grade III Sunset against the boys before disappointing as the favorite in the Grade I Beverly D. in August. Trainer Tom Proctor blamed a fast breeze (5 furlongs in 59 1/5 seconds) for that defeat. She’s been freshened and aimed since.

“She’s an exceptional filly, obviously the Beverly D. was a big disappointment, we didn’t see the real Marketing Mix that day. She warmed up keen, she’s usually warmed up and quiet, she was pulling, me and the pony rider. She left there running, pulling. I almost wish I dropped her head and let her click along. She was using a lot of energy pulling against me, I was empty at the three eighths pole.

“Hopefully she’ll be back to herself, she’s had some good works since the Beverly D. She loves the Santa Anita turf course, I’m looking for a big effort. She’s push button when she’s on her game.

“I have not been on her for her breezes, Tom had a big smile on his face this morning. I hate throwing out grade ones, but it was a throw out race. To be honest, the race Dank ran, I wasn’t going to beat her, but it should have been a better race.”

Stevens replaced Garrett Gomez on Spendthrift’s Beholder for the Torrey Pines, a $100,000 stakes at Del Mar September 1. It was Beholder’s first start since finishing second in the Kentucky Oaks in May. She won easily, setting up the Richard Mandella trainee for her first clash with older filly and mares. Authenticity ships in for trainer Todd Pletcher and Joyful Victory goes west for trainer Larry Jones.

“It was basically a paid workout for her, she gave me an awesome feeling that not too many have given me. I told Richard the other morning, when I worked her on the dirt at Santa Anita, it was the first time I’ve been on her on the dirt, I said, ‘I don’t know how it could be but she gave me a better feel on the dirt.’ She’s sitting on go.

“It’s an interesting race, she’s stepping up against older mares for the first time but she always works in company with older colts or whatever happens to be available. She goes about her business pretty well. Joyful Victory, it’s hard telling what she’s going to do but Beholder seems really versatile when I’ve worked her in the mornings with company.

“She’s one that I just try to get along with and be a passenger. She can be a little quirky, she had the episode before the Kentucky Oaks where she dropped Garrett. You just want to sit real quiet on her, that’s pretty much how I ride her. She’s push button, working her the other day, I broke off on even terms with my workmate, then took her back off of him, just sit back there and cruise, she accelerated on her own at the quarter pole. She’s been like that in all her workouts and that’s how she was to ride in the race as well.

“She’s very intelligent filly and just a beautiful mover. She’s just the opposite of headstrong, she’s very cooperative to my hands and what I want to do.”

Stevens picks up the ride aboard Mucho Macho Man in his first start since finishing third in the Whitney at Saratoga. The six-time winner has banked $2.4 million in a stellar 21-race career. Trainer Kathy Ritvo shipped the 5-year-old son of Macho Uno to Santa Anita in hopes of snapping a five-race losing streak.

“I have not breezed him, he had a great workout two weeks ago. I offered my services but I said, ‘Look, if you don’t want me to, I understand 100 percent, I’d hate to screw up a work a week out from the race.’ Her nephew gallops him and works him. She smiled and said, ‘You’ve watched his races, I know you’re a fan of his.’ I’ve been a fan of his since the first time I saw him, I went back for HRTV to cover the Risen Star, I said, ‘Man, when this horse fills out…’ He was a big, lanky thing but he’s definitely grown up. I’ve been watching him train. My first day back at Santa Anita, he’s one of those horses, you see him and you’re like, ‘Holy…’ He’s been full of himself galloping in the morning. I’m really happy with his draw too, he’s handy, he’s got some speed, he’s very versatile, I can look over, I’m in a good spot with him.

“I’m going to get acquainted with him and hopefully it comes away a win, but the main goal is the Breeders’ Cup. I feel it as the race goes along.”