‘The natural’ Stevens goes from saddle to sermons

Jan 10, 2006 2:14 AM

Move over, Robert Redford.

If ever there was a "Natural," it’s Gary Stevens. He was bred to be in the saddle and he’s the prototypical athlete-turned-analyst.

Stevens, who was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame in 1997, announced his retirement as a jockey on Nov. 26 after surpassing the 5,000-win plateau in an exemplary 26-year career. The 42-year-old native of Idaho then signed on with home account wagering network TVG and NBC as a premier racing practitioner.

Viewers will benefit on two cardinal counts with Stevens: he has won important horse races around the globe and thus knows whereof he speaks. And he is the rarest jock-turned-broadcaster when he does speak: he expresses himself with a sense of eloquence and rarer still, he speaks in complete sentences, with a paucity of ums, likes, ya knows, dudes and basicallys. But that’s not news. It’s as common as Dick Vermeil crying at a press conference. Gary’s declarative statements are completed as required in Journalism 101 — in firm, downward tones, not indecisive, upward Valley Girl inflections, which make their reciters sound like they starred in "Dumb and Dumber." People of that ilk don’t know the difference between Sumatra and Sinatra.

But I digress.

Stevens received high praise from the movie-going public and professional critics alike for his portrayal of George Woolf in the 2003 film, Seabiscuit, in his acting debut. His glossy dossier as a rider includes three victories in the Kentucky Derby, eight Breeders’ Cup wins, 28 victories in $1 million races, a record 10 Santa Anita Derby wins, two near-misses in the Triple Crown with Silver Charm in 1997 and Point Given in 2001, 5,005 career victories and more than $220 million in purse earnings.

If Gary had his druthers, his riding days would have ended a month sooner than they did.

"I was thinking about stopping on Breeders’ Cup day (Oct. 29) but over the past two years I’ve had a very good relationship with Patrick Biancone, and we had some young horses we’d been concentrating on for the end of the Churchill meet," Stevens told me. "We had a good partnership for the last year and I wanted to finish up on good terms with him.

"Unfortunately, I couldn’t go out a winner on his horse (13-1 shot Gorella, third behind Artie Schiller and Leroidesanimoux in the Mile, beaten less than a length despite being steadied repeatedly) in the last ride. It wasn’t one of the best rides I’ve ever had but it was a typical Stevens ride on the turf. I saved ground and unfortunately got shuffled back on the turn and wasn’t able to come through and get up in time, but it would have been nice."

Gary’s lucrative tour with TVG begins Friday, but the man who was once selected by People Magazine as one of the world’s most beautiful people won’t have his handsome mug on the tube much at the outset.

"Jan. 14 is my first day with TVG, but it’s going to be a pretty light workload the first two months," Stevens said. "I won’t be in studio a whole lot throughout the year. I’ll only be working about four days in January for TVG and four days in February, then it cranks up pretty good. In March I’ll be going to Barbados to do the Barbados Gold Cup. Then I’ll do Keeneland in the spring and do the works leading up to the (Kentucky) Derby. I’m also doing the Sunshine Millions for NBC on Jan. 28. Hopefully, I’ll have a good, long relationship with NBC as well."

Unlike many athletes, Stevens went out on his own terms, despite suffering from chronic arthritis in his knees which forced a sudden and unexpected retirement for 10 months on Oct. 4, 2000.

He did, however, lament one omission on his ledger.

"The only regret I have is never winning a Breeders’ Cup Classic," Stevens said. "I was second four times. That’s probably the biggest disappointment of my career but I don’t have anything to be ashamed of, for sure, and thinking back on it, I’m having a lot of fun right now. I’ve put on a few LBS (pounds; he’s above 130), but I’m happy and looking forward to the second half of my life."

The homestretch

”¡ Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies champion Folklore is scheduled to make her 3-year-old debut in Monday’s Santa Ynez Stakes. Wayne Lukas says her way of going is as good as any filly he’s trained, and he’s conditioned greats like Lady’s Secret, Landaluce, Azeri, Flanders, Winning Colors and Serena’s Song. "She’s not a real big, imposing filly," Lukas told me, "but she gets over the ground like a deer, probably better than any of the others. I just think she’s a very gifted athlete."

”¡ Chris Emigh (pronounced Amy), leading rider at the recent Hawthorne meet with 66 wins, has joined the Santa Anita jockey colony. He was among the top 40 riders in earnings and 22nd in wins with 219. Former rider Corey Black will represent Emigh, who is blessed with matinee idol looks and turns 35 on Saturday.

”¡ Too bad about USC: the University of Shameful Choke.

”¡ And is it just me or isn’t it about time Richard Simmons shed that shabby 70s tank top and pathetic perm and sashay his pudgy butt into the 21st century?