Apr 1 2014

Gary Stevens – You’re Only As Good As Your Last Ride

Gary Stevens and Mucho Macho Girl

Gary Stevens and Mucho Macho Girl

In Part 1 of our interview with Gary we discussed his relationship with his son, T.C. Stevens, who is presently a head trainer.  Click here to read Part 1 about how proud Gary Stevens is of his son and what he is presently doing.

In part 2 of our conversation, Gary talks about the young jockey Dylan Davis and his friendship with his dad, Robbie Davis. That leads into topics on jockey safety, pre-race preparations, and how he deals with the emotions of a roller coaster business. On the last subject, Gary shares his experiences during Breeders’ Cup 2013 … from the low of being disqualified in a $2 million dollar race to the high of winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Mucho Macho Man.

I recently interviewed Dylan Davis, an apprentice jockey down at Gulfstream Park.  What’s the difference in perspective between a young guy like Dylan and a seasoned guy like you?

Dylan Davis

Dylan Davis

To be honest with you, probably not a lot right now.  Because, after seven years of retirement, the exuberance is back again, and I can’t wait to go to work every day.  I’d sort of lost that … between my knees, over 30 years of riding, and all the miles … I’d lost that passion about it … and that’s one reason why I choose to step out of it.  Being away for seven years, I realized how much I missed it.  Right now, every day I go out and ride – I treat it as a gift.  At Dylan’s age – you have that passion; you can’t wait to go to work every day, and no hill is too big to climb.

Fortunately, I’m at the point now where I can pick and choose a little bit what I want to ride and my workload, and that way I will still have that passion every day … because I don’t want to burn out.  But, at Dylan’s age, you don’t burn out – you’re just lovin’ every minute of it.  Every day you learn something new.  I watched Dylan win a race yesterday and thought to myself, he’s a veteran now, he didn’t look like an apprentice I’ll tell you that.  The sky is the limit for him.  Good kid … very good kid.

Did you know Dylan’s dad Robbie Davis?

Robbie’s an Idaho boy, just like I am.  We’re the same age, but Robbie had a name (riding) before I did.  He was riding in New York while I was sprouting my wings at Longacres.  We never met until I’d come to southern California and then made my first trip to Belmont Park to ride a race.  We were well aware of our backgrounds, but we’d never met before that.  We immediately hit it off and when Robbie later quit riding and then came back … he started riding in southern California.  Then we became best friends.

We both had dirt bikes, and every Tuesday we’d go dirt bike riding together.  I had dirt bikes when I was a kid.  I guess that’s just something we do in Idaho.  Robbie had a real passion for hot rods and motorcycles.  And his kids were brought up around motorcycles from the time they were tiny.  We had one of them friendships where we didn’t know each other, then met in our mid-20s, and became very close friends.

Dylan was very emphatic about the importance of jockey safety.  Is that something being taught to the young guys more today than when you were coming up?

No, I don’t think so, maybe more of the opposite.  Dylan was fortunate enough to have a dad that was one of the leading riders in the country for a long time and one of the best riders I’ve ridden with.  Also, Dylan went through Chris McCarron’s riding school.  I was fortunate enough to ride with Chris for a long time, and Chris comes from my era.  Man, we used to take care of each other out there, especially if we had the young riders.  We’d help them and we’d teach them.  Unfortunately that’s slipped away a little bit.  But, thank goodness for Chris’s riding school.  I wish there were more guidelines for obtaining your jockey’s license.  Unfortunately, in North America we’ve never really had stipulations of mandatory riding schools, length of time you have to spend in them, or how much time you must spend working horses, before you can actually get your jockey’s license.

Dylan, he’s been taught old school.  Wesley Ward has really helped him out too.  Wesley has started a lot of young apprentices. And Wesley learned when he was young.  He was a leading rider in America and a top apprentice.  So, Dylan has been fortunate enough to be with not only his dad, but also Chris McCarron and Wesley Ward … which I am sure has helped him immensely.

How does a jockey balance the desire to win, with being safe?

AP McCoy Falls During Horse Race

Photo by Paolo Camera

You hope the guys you’re riding with have some intelligence.  Unfortunately … sometimes the only time a young rider learns is when they hit the ground.  When you hit the ground, you start picking your head up and learn to take educated risks with what you do.

This past weekend I rode Temeraine, the horse I won the Kentucky Turf Cup race with back in September, and I went into an opening that was about like the one at Kentucky Downs when I won on him.  It was a big race, and I knew my horse would react the right way, so I took my chance and unfortunately another horse came over on us and two of us almost fell, and a number was taken down.  I saw it coming and knew enough to stop riding to protect not only myself, but the rider inside of me.  It’s like Dylan says, there’s always going to be another day.

What is your pre-race preparation?

Now my routine is much different than it was when I was younger, because I don’t ride the amount of races that I did.  A day where I might ride four or five races, that’s a big day for me now.  Normally, I’ll only ride one or two a day and that’s it.  But, when the big days come I’ve got to be ready to ride six and be as confident in the last race as I was in the first race.

I usually get up in the morning and have a protein shake with some natural fruit in it.  I walk almost 2 ½ miles every day … a brisk walk, which is around 4 miles an hour.  And, that’s with about a 6% incline.  I do that no matter how many races I’m riding that day.  I go out to the racetrack, watch horses work.  I have my routine … it doesn’t change too much, no matter where I’m at.  If I’m at a hotel, I make sure it’s a hotel with a gym.

When I get to the jockey’s room, I go over my racing form.  Have a sauna for a little while, maybe a massage.  Then go over my racing form again before the race.  Watch races that are going on, to see if there is any bias in the racetrack … then recalculate things.  Just try and have more than one plan.  If Plan A doesn’t work, then I’m going to Plan B or C.  I’m constantly running checks.  When I’m in that Jock’s room I don’t want to be bothered; it’s my sanctuary. That’s where nobody else can get to me, or talk to me.  That’s my time, that’s my place.  Sometimes I watch films of competitors I’m racing against.  If it’s a real laid back day, like a Thursday, I might check out what’s going on with Twitter.  See what nasty things somebody has said about me, and the previous race I rode.  Anything to keep me loose, but still keep me in my zone and focused.

What are you looking for in the Daily Racing Form?

Speed of the race is always important.  Who is on the horse that may be the speed of the race?  Who’s going to come from out of it?  If there’s a change of rider on a horse that normally shows speed, but now it’s a jockey that’s a more relaxed type of jockey … you might expect something different from this horse, or at least be prepared for something different.  Fortunately, being this age and riding with most of these guys, and watching them on film when I was a racing commentator … I know what most of these guys have and haven’t done even if I haven’t ridden with them.  You know what their tendencies are.  So I place them on the horse, and how the race is going to set up.  I’ve got a lot of different scenarios running around in my head before I ever walk out of that jock’s room.  I think I’m more prepared now than I was before my retirement.

Footnote:  Click here to read a previous article on this website that discusses “speed of the race,” or Pace as it is often referred.  Ironically, the article uses as an example Oxbow, the horse that Gary so masterfully rode to a win in the 2013 Preakness Stakes.

Dylan said that being a young rider, he sometimes gets a lot of race riding instructions in the paddock.  Is that something you still have to deal with?

I did and it’s so frustrating.  My feeling is, if they’ve got to pass out that many instructions then they’ve probably got the wrong rider anyway.  You just have to listen to it when you’re younger though.  But now, people just turn me loose.  You know what Tom Proctor tells me when I go out there for him?  He says, “Just ride ‘em.”

But, I do love hearing if a horse has any tendencies … just to prepare me.  If a horse wants to get out a little bit, or doesn’t like the inside, or if you can point him at the eye of a needle and he’ll run through it.  I like knowing those things.  I don’t like being told how to ride the race, but I like hearing about the habits a horse has … his likes and dislikes.

Can you give an example of some of those tendencies?

Best On Outside

Best On Outside

You can go anywhere you want with him, but he always does his best running on the outside.  If you get your choice, and you’re not losing too much ground, he is better on the outside … but if you have to come inside, he will do it.  I like hearing something like that, because it gives me options.  Or, this horse – you can put him anywhere you want, but when you start your run, you definitely need to be on the outside.

Or, this horse really leans in when you’re coming into the stretch – he’ll try and lay on horses.  So now you’re aware of it and you can prepare for it.  And you’ll be able to put yourself in a position where you won’t hinder your chances of winning the race by sliding up next to a horse with a horse that you already know is going to lean in.  If you do slide up next to that horse, you won’t give him room to switch leads.  But if you know the tendency, then you can allow for it, and give him the room he needs.  Those are some things I like to know.

Also, today we have access in the jock’s room to these video machines where we can pull up any race. If I’m on a horse that I’ve never ridden before I’ll watch their previous races.  And if I see something that a horse is continually doing … then I’m ready for it.

How do you manage your emotions, with the ups and downs of this business?

I was told a long time ago, from my first agent (Ray Kravagna) … when a race is over with, and you cross the finish line, I don’t care if you won by 5 lengths or got beat on a favorite … as soon as you cross that finish line … it’s turf history.  Start thinking about the next horse you’re riding … right now, as you’re galloping out.  When you hit the finish line, that race is over.  Don’t think about what just happened.

Mucho Macho Man with Gary Stevens

Mucho Macho Man with Gary Stevens

A prime example was in the Breeders’ Cup this year, when I was disqualified on She’s A Tiger early in the day.  And, here I’ve got Mucho Macho Man to ride in the Classic.  I’ve never been disqualified in a $2 million race before.  I had to get rid of it man.  I had to go back into the Jock’s room and start thinking about the other horses I had to ride.  I was pissed off.  I thought it was a questionable call and it was tough … tough on my owners.  But, I had to get it out of my brain and concentrate on what was coming later in the day.

Just the day before I’d won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Beholder.  That was huge for me man … just coming out.  Here I am, with the highest high you can have the day before with Beholder.  But, I had seven more to ride the next day, so I couldn’t linger.  When I woke up on Saturday morning … Friday didn’t happen.  I had to be in the same mental state on Saturday morning that I had been on Friday morning.  In other words, don’t rest on your laurels.  You’re only as good as your last ride.

Those are the emotions you deal with.  That’s about as extreme as it gets, from being disqualified on She’s A Tiger to coming back, and on the last race of the day, winning the Classic with Mucho Macho Man.  Try to keep all those emotions in check.

(Willie) Shoemaker was the greatest at it.  He’d come back in the Jock’s room and he might win a $1 million race by a nose or he might get beat by a nose in a $1 million dollar race … but, his temperament never changed.  You wouldn’t know if he won or lost.  He was always the same.  I don’t know if that’s a gift or something you can teach yourself, but to me that’s a most important part.

If the same thing had happened 20 years ago, would you have handled yourself as well as you did this year?

With what I had on the line later in the day, I think I would have … but, I don’t know, I may have gone ape-shit!  A lot has changed since then.  I’ll tell you what humbled me … training horses.  It’s a lot simpler being a jockey than a horse trainer.  As a horse trainer, you only have so many chances.  When things are bungled up, when things don’t go right, you have no control sitting up there in the grandstand.  But, as a jockey, I know that I’ve got other chances.  I can shake it out of my head.  It’s a lot easier when there is a bad experience to shake it out of your head than when you’re a trainer.  I’ve always respected trainers, but I respect them even more now after wearing their shoes for a little while.  It’s not an easy game man.

Gary, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you, and for being so candid in our conversation. Early on, you made the comment about your son, T.C., “What he thinks you usually hear.”  It’s clear the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree in this case.  I am sure this trait can be a burden at times for a person with your visibility.  But, when all is said and done, what is the alternative?  You are what my dad used to call a “straight shooter.”  I’m willing to bet,  in Idaho, that’s an admirable quality.  Best wishes to you … and your family.  And Gary … “Just Ride ‘Em.”

One last footnote, to Angie Stevens, thank you for making this all happen … and the photos, and the editing advice.


Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

Meet The People Logo2

2 comments on “Gary Stevens – You’re Only As Good As Your Last Ride

  1. Hey Tutti Va Bene Neal…..I loved that video with Joe. You looked pretty sharp too….Tony
    [Tony is referring to the TV Interview Neal did about the website and his upcoming Triple Crown Seminar series in the Albany-Saratoga area. Here is the link: http://vimeo.com/89718229 ]

  2. Loved this article. And Gary’s philosophy about “as soon as you cross the finish line it’s turf history.” Start thinking about your next ride. Advice that is useful to everyone, in any job, in any circumstance. Always look forward, no sense worrying about the past. Perfect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *