On Track with Johnny D: Back in the Saddle Again…and Again

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Lynn Stevens won a race last Saturday at Santa Anita.

Big deal. He’d won 5,083 before that.

In a career that began in 1979, Stevens has won some of the world’s biggest races—Kentucky Derby (3), Preakness (3), Belmont (3), Dubai World Cup (1), Breeders Cup (11), Santa Anita Derby (9) Santa Anita Handicap (4), and more.

And, while he’s never won a Triple Crown, he’s famously ruined one. With history on the line, it was under Stevens’ relentless urging that Victory Gallop hung a heartbreaking nose upset over Real Quiet in the ’98 Belmont.

You get the gist. The guy’s been around…and around. Turning left and going in circles for years.

So why, at age 54, is he still throwing a leg over either side?

Maybe he needs the bread? Who knows? We don’t think that’s the reason. His mounts have earned over $250 million, so he should have a few sheckles saved…even if it’s by accident.

Plus, it’s not like the guy can’t do anything else to make a buck. He’s talented on the ground, too. He had a cushy analyst job with NBC Sports, covering all the big horse races. In many ways that seat was way better than the one he has now—it included a steady check and if he happened to fall from his perch atop a swivel chair he couldn’t get that hurt.

You might remember him acting in the movie Seabiscuit. He played “The Iceman,” George Woolf–a jockey. Not a stretch for him, one would imagine, and he did very well. So well, in fact, that he also was cast as a jockey in HBO’s ill-fated television series Luck. This time his character was an over-the-hill, mean-spirited, substance-abusing lout. Gary did well with that part, too.

You can’t say Gary Stevens doesn’t know when to quit because he’s retired so many times before.

What he doesn’t get is how to not comeback.

At his age and station, mornings should include coffee, the sports section and walking the dog.

Not breezing one five-eighths in :59 and change.

Afternoons should be spent swinging a putter not a whip. Tying knots on golf shoes instead of reins on horseback.

But, as they say, you can’t keep a good man down. And, when it comes to riding racehorses, not many have been better than Gary Stevens. Maybe none.

Know how they say, ‘You’re only as old as you feel?’ Well, six months ago Stevens felt prehistoric. Needles in his aching hip no longer worked.

And a jockey with a bum hip is as useless as a Ferrari missing a transmission.

He felt inadequate in the saddle. That he was cheating owners, trainers, horseplayers and, most importantly, himself.

Now, Gary Stevens in the saddle at 75% probably still translates into a fairly competent jockey. But homey don’t play that game. Competence sucks. With this dude, it’s like Sinatra croons, “All or nothing at all.” Win or don’t play.

Friends warmly refer to Stevens as “The Hick.” That’s partly because he was born in Caldwell, ID, home of the Red Dog Saloon and Los Mariachis Caldwell restaurant–which you may know from its flagship operation in Boise.

Or not.

It’s also because, even though Stevens has rubbed elbows with Hollywood types for decades, he’d still gladly don Justins, jeans and a shiny, oversized, bull-riding championship belt buckle to feed the jukebox and shoot some pool in the nearest dive bar.

He possesses a rugged, stubborn streak sometimes associated with American cowboy characters dramatized in westerns. No way a band of hired guns would intimidate Gary Lynn Stevens into surrendering his spread to the railroad.

Like all great athletes, Stevens is confident and he believes…no, check that, he knows…that once he sets his mind he can accomplish anything.

It’s that unbreakable attitude that’s got him, to borrow a phrase, back in the saddle again…and again.

It’s what propelled him to return to riding in 2014 after total knee replacement surgery. And it’s what’s brought him back, again after hip replacement surgery in December 2016.

Steve Austin, main character in The Six Million Dollar Man of ‘70s television fame, sported “bionic” implants in his right arm, both legs and left eye. No matter how many comebacks he makes Stevens will be hard-pressed to top that.

But, as the show’s popular opening catchphrase promised, “We can rebuild him; we have the technology.”

With all that artillery, though, it’s doubtful he’d make riding weight.

 Rebel Yell

Rocker Billy Idol made the song “Rebel Yell” and the album of the same name famous in the 1980s. Reportedly, Idol wrote the lyrics after atending an event where Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones took swigs of “Rebel Yell” bourbon whiskey. The song was co-written by guitarist Steve Stevens.

There will be some ‘Rebel’ yelling and, undoubtedly, some bourbon swigging Saturday at Oaklawn Park when that track presents the 57th running of the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel Stakes at a mile and one-sixteenth. The race has attracted 11 runners—6 last-out locals and 5 invaders (3 from Arcadia, CA and one each from New Orleans, LA and Hallandale Beach, FL)—topped by 2-1 favorite American Anthem from the Bob Baffert barn.

One has the distinct impression that if Baffert were to enter a stable pony in the Rebel he’d be the favorite. After all, the white-haired trainer’s saddled the winner in six out of the last seven Rebel renewals. No one’s seen that kind of major stakes domination since Woody Stevens quit winning Belmonts.

Saturday’s Rebel appears to be loaded with early speed as Uncontested, wire-to-wire winner of the Smarty Jones in January and failed favorite in the Southwest Stakes last out, attempts to right the ship. He breaks from the two-hole and has Silver Bullion, another front-runner to his inside. Uncontested should win that race to the first turn. Malagacy, fresh from two sprint scores at Gulfstream Park for Todd Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano and breaking from post six, also will display impactful early speed. Add American Anthem from the seven hole to the early mix, plus Royal Mo, breaking from 10 wide, and early pace sparks figure to ignite a conflagration.

We’ve been following Rebel starter #11 Lookin At Lee for a while with great interest. He first caught our attention when second, just three lengths behind Classic Empire, in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland in October. Before that he was a well-beaten second to Not This Time in the Iroquois at Churchill. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, his final start of 2016, Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen added blinkers to Lookin At Lee’s equipment and the Lookin At Lucky colt finished a belated fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita—behind winner Classic Empire and runner up Not This Time. In his only 2017 start, Lookin At Lee was third in the Southwest Stakes behind One Liner and Petrov—the latter is back in the Rebel.

Will Lookin At Lee upset the Rebel applecart? He might, the fast pace will suit his closing style and he’s never taken a backward step according to Beyer Speed Figures. While he’ll need to improve on his Beyer best of 83, I’ll have a few rubles on him to win, just in case. What’s more likely to happen, though, is that he’ll finish a fast-closing second or third. At 15-1 on the morning line, we can do something with that kind of performance to juice exacta and trifecta payoffs.

After all, historically speaking, can you think of a more fitting Rebel winner than ‘Lee…General Robert E. Lee?

Race On!


On Track with Johnny D: Back in the Saddle Again…and Again

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