Three-time Derby winner Stevens likes Pyro in '08

Mar 25, 2008 6:00 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Gary Stevens is what is known as a "quick study." He has to be.

You can’t walk in cold from one profession to another without missing a beat unless you have a mind like a steel trap, as the saying goes.

Stevens sashayed from world class rider to world class actor when he stepped away from racing to portray George (The Iceman) Woolf in the 2003 hit film, "Seabiscuit," earning critical acclaim for his performance. Also that year, People Magazine named him one of America’s 50 Most Beautiful People. Stevens numbers those credits on his enviable resume, on which the latest item lists him as analyst for NBC-TV and HRTV.

No living jockey has had more success winning the Kentucky Derby. Thus it seemed Stevens had the ideal brain to pick when asking about what intangibles are relevant when it comes to capturing the world’s most famous horse race, which this year takes place on May 3 at Churchill Downs. Stevens, now 45, won the Run for the Roses in 1988 aboard the front-running filly Winning Colors; in 1995 on 24-1 shot Thunder Gulch, each time for Wayne Lukas; and in 1997 on 4-1 shot Silver Charm, trained by Bob Baffert.

Asked how germane luck was in winning, Stevens recounted his paths to glory like it was yesterday, barely pausing for breath.

"You’ve got to be so lucky to win, from January until you cross the finish line," Stevens said. "We never had a straw in our path when Winning Colors won. There wasn’t a whole lot of luck involved, with how I got to ride her or anything else. I’d been riding her from the start of the year. You could say I was lucky to get on her the first time, but other than that, I was her rider and she was my horse. Everything just went perfect.

"It was a whole different story with Thunder Gulch. I rode him in the Remsen as a 2-year-old, and that was the only time I’d set on his back until I rode him in the Kentucky Derby. I had won the Santa Anita Derby on Larry the Legend and soon after was riding under contract in Hong Kong. On a trip back to the states, my agent, Ron Anderson, had a horrible look on his face when he picked me up at the airport. When I asked what happened, he told me, ‘Larry the Legend broke down.’

"In the meantime, Wayne Lukas started calling because he needed a rider for Thunder Gulch. I had watched all his races and he wasn’t winning by any large margins; a nose, a head, and he was playing around, like he did when I rode him in the Remsen. He was just a big playboy and I didn’t want to come back from the Orient to ride him.

"But Wayne was persistent, and I was just as persistent telling Ron no. After I called five times, I was exhausted, saying I didn’t want to go. But at the same time, I was having a little problem with the trainer I was riding for in Hong Kong, so going back to ride Thunder Gulch would give me an excuse to get out of my contract. That’s the only reason I came back, and I wound up winning the Derby. I really didn’t anticipate it.

Wayne had three horses in the Derby that year–Thunder Gulch, Tabasco Cat and Serena’s Song–and I was on the longest shot of the bunch (Tabasco Cat and Serena’s Song ran as an entry at 3-1). Wayne gave me the big pep talk, which he was good at doing, and the rest is history.

"With Silver Charm, I had my sights set on three or four horses that year. Chris McCarron had ridden Silver Charm in the San Felipe and ran second to Free House. Chris was riding several different Derby prospects that year. He and Scotty (agent Scott McClellan) had their choice of several horses, but Mr. Lewis (the late Bob Lewis, who owned Silver Charm with his wife, Beverly) wanted a commitment from Chris shortly after the San Felipe to ride him in the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Chris hadn’t given him one.

"I got a phone call on a Tuesday afternoon from Baffert asking me for a commitment, and I said, ‘Hell, yeah,’ and the rest is history."

Given his choice at press time, who would Stevens ride in this year’s Derby?

"It’s still wide open," he said. "I’ve narrowed it down to about eight horses. I love the California contingent, with El Gato Malo and Colonel John. Georgie Boy and Gayego both ran huge in the San Felipe. I think Gayego is going to move forward. I like Big Truck’s Tampa Bay Derby win, as well as the horse of (Todd) Pletcher’s that was second, Atoned. It was his first race as a 3-year-old, so that was promising.

"I like Visionaire’s race in the Gotham, although we couldn’t see much of it until the end, because of the weather. I liked that he overcame some adversity. Big Brown was really impressive (in his 12-length allowance win at Gulfstream Park) and Court Vision had a good comeback race.

"But I love Pyro. If they were going to run the Derby next Sunday, that’s who I would want to be on."

The homestretch

Word from Barclay Tagg’s barn is that Big Truck could make his next start in either the Grade III Holy Bull at Gulfstream on April 12 or the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland the same day. Nobiz Like Showbiz is going to have a "light campaign" with the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile his long-range goal.

• Attention Kentucky Derby Future Book players: Bob Baffert cautions against playing any horse that has not proved itself over a dirt surface before running at Churchill Downs on May 3. "You can’t judge a horse based on their races over a synthetic surface," the three-time Kentucky Derby said. "When a horse runs three-quarters (of a mile) in 13 (1:13 on a synthetic surface), you can’t get a line on them until they run on dirt."

• Lookalikes: Bobby Knight and Oliver North.