From saddle to studio,
Stevens enjoying ride

Aug 22, 2006 1:41 AM

Who said you can’t take the country out of the boy?

For a kid who began grooming horses for his father at age eight in a rural burg called Caldwell, Idaho, Gary Stevens has come a long way. From a humble beginning, thanks to his prowess on horseback, he became a world traveler, with classic stops in Europe, the Orient, the Caribbean and the Middle East, ennobling himself with kings, queens, princes and sheiks, all the while seldom misusing a proper turn of phrase.

His skill in the saddle reaped three Kentucky Derby triumphs, five Breeders’ Cup wins and 5,005 career victories, earning him a place in racing’s Hall of Fame in 1997. At 34, he was the second-youngest person inducted in the hallowed venue. His mounts earned more than $221 million.

Despite more than a dozen injuries that ranged from routine to severe, including painfully arthritic knees that forced an abrupt and brief retirement late in 1999, Stevens soldiered on for 26 years at the game’s highest level. He retired for keeps late last year.

His transition from riding to television analyst for TVG and NBC was as natural as white on rice. He had compiled an elaborate vocabulary and that, coupled with matinee idol good looks that placed him on People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list in 2003, enhanced an ideal dossier.

It also was in 2003 that Stevens made his acting debut, earning unanimous accolades from critics for his credible portrayal of George Woolf in Universal’s smash movie, "Seabiscuit."

Stevens now is enjoying his gig with TVG at Del Mar. He is in his element: beautiful people at a beautiful race track in beautiful weather. What’s not to like?

"It’s going great. I’m having a great time, working with great people, and I’m very, very comfortable," the 43-year-old Stevens said. "It’s exciting for me, especially spending the summer at Del Mar. I’ve covered some great races and it’s a great mix for me. I’ve got plenty of time to do my handicapping and prepare for the shows, and preparation is every bit as time-consuming as it was riding races, if not more so."

His metamorphosis from saddle smith to wordsmith is attributable in large part to his global gyrations.

"I didn’t have a college education," Stevens said, "but I had what was better than a college education, although I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody, because not everyone gets the opportunities I’ve had of traveling throughout the world and dealing with people of every status.

"I was fortunate enough to be surrounded with very good people throughout my career and I feel like I got my education through my travel."

Great actors bring audiences into their realm sans clamor and hoopla. The majority of the paying public doesn’t have to be hit over the head to recognize an authentic characterization. That’s what made Stevens’ role as Woolf so soothing. Unfortunately, there are no Woolf’s in sheep’s clothing for Stevens in the immediate future, or so it would seem.

"I’ve got some scripts in front of me that are interesting," Stevens said, "but until it happens it’s sort of like waiting for a highly regarded 2-year-old to make it to the races."

THE HOMESTRETCH:

”¡ Gary Nelson, whose arduous and often thankless task it is to clock Del Mar’s workouts every morning, says the track is taking an unfair hit for the 13 thoroughbred fatalities so far this meet. "I see a lot of horses out there that good horsemen would back off of," said Nelson, who has been clocking for 28 years. "So you can’t fault the track for horses like that breaking down. A lot of them are sore and you hate to see the track get such a bad rap, especially when there are 2,500 horses down here that have to work to stay in racing shape."

”¡ Stevens on the current crop of Southern California jockeys: "Besides the established riders, the one I’ve taken most notice of is Mike Baze." Apprentice Martin Garcia has made a dramatic impact since arriving from the Bay Area, but he’s facing nearly three weeks of down time for riding infractions, Stevens pointed out. "He’s been handed 20 days of suspensions in 23 days and hadn’t served any of them. He’s going to have to at some point."

”¡ Roses in May, winner of the world’s richest race last year, the $6 million Dubai World Cup, currently is standing at stud on the island of Hokkaido for Japanese interests, who paid $8 million for that privilege, according to trainer Dale Romans. "He had about 170 girlfriends this year," said the 40-year-old trainer, who hopes to have West Virginia Derby winner Bright One ready for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4. While the stud fee has not been announced, assuming Roses in May gets $30,000 per service, a conservative figure that would generate more than $5 million in a single season.

”¡ Heart felt condolences to stalwart trainer Greg Gilchrist and Harry Aleo, octogenarian owner of champion sprinter Lost In The Fog, whose days apparently are numbered due to inoperable cancer.

”¡ Osama bin Laden has been holed up so long, he ought to be called Osama been Hidin.’

”¡ I love watching Nomar Garciaparra bat. He makes me feel mellow.

”¡ Why is DNA the definitive evidence in every criminal trial, including those decades old, except in the O.J. Simpson case?