BALTIMORE — Gary Stevens came within a length of his fourth Kentucky Derby win when Firing Line finished second to American Pharoah.
Not bad for a 52-year-old rider with an artificial knee.
The Hall of Famer will try to even the score Saturday in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course when the Derby runner-up again faces the Bob Baffert-trained duo of American Pharoah and third-place Derby finisher Dortmund.
“As we get older, we’re not going to get too many chances, so hopefully look, if he’s 80 years old or 79, he’s still bringing it. But it’s tougher as we go along,” Baffert said of the rider who won a Derby for him in 1998 aboard Silver Charm. “He brings a lot of experience into this race.”
Stevens is considered a brilliant tactician, perhaps the best among active jockeys. His latest Derby ride was a textbook case in point. Stevens maneuvered Firing Line through early traffic in a bulky 18-horse field to fashion an ideal trip behind the pacesetting Dortmund.
It was a two-horse race in the final sixteenth-of-a-mile with American Pharoah prevailing, preventing a 9-1 upset by Stevens and Firing Line.
“I know Gary really well, and so I had a feeling the race was going to set up like that,” Baffert said. “He was so focused. I was watching him all week. That horse was training well, and Gary’s out there helping him train, so Gary’s on a mission too, like I am.”
Stevens could add another big win to his remarkable career — and improbable comeback — with a fourth Preakness win.
Knees have always been Stevens’ weakness. They forced him to the sideline in 1999. He returned the following year only to retire — seemingly for good — in 2005.
Out of the saddle, he stayed active as a television analyst, had a few acting roles as a follow up to his appearance in the movie “Seabiscuit,” and briefly trained horses.
But the lure of competition drove him to return in 2013. He amazingly picked up where he left off, winning the Preakness that year with Oxbow and the Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Mucho Macho Man.
Those victories could not erase the pain of arthritis. Stevens underwent right knee replacement in July of last year. Once again on the comeback trail, Stevens now rides a feisty colt who relishes a good fight.
“He was training like a bear all week long,” Stevens said of countdown to the Derby. “As the race approached closer, he was very, very relaxed, but his energy level, he kept getting tougher and tougher and tougher in the mornings.
“So I knew I was sitting on a horse that was on go, leading into the Derby.”
Firing Line did gain a measure of revenge, finally finishing ahead of Dortmund after two narrow losses in Derby preps in California.
Now it’s Round 2 against the Baffert duo.
“Hopefully we can turn the tables on American Pharaoh, the same as we did Dortmund,” Stevens said. “But believe me, I have plenty of respect for all three horses. They are very, very good and exceptional colts.”
The edge could be the rider.
“He’s a really good guy, and I think for all these top end races, I don’t think you can have anyone better than Gary on your horse,” Simon Callaghan, Firing Line’s trainer, said. “So in the race, we’ll pretty much leave it to him, and whatever he decides to do is good with us.”
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