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Friday, January 4, 2013
All eyes on Gary Stevens

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

Embarrassment or geezer glory -- which will it be for Gary Stevens when he resumes his riding career? Will he become a joke or a hero?

More than six years after his retirement and a couple months before his 50th birthday, Stevens has been named to ride Jebrica in the sixth race Sunday at Santa Anita. But why is he doing this? And ultimately, will this comeback be foolish or admirable?

Why do so many elite athletes find it difficult to retire, or stay retired, even when the diminution of their skills has become apparent to everyone? Why does the professional athlete often become a master of self-delusion when his fastball loses its zip, or his bat its pop or his jump shot its range?

But in his announcement on HRTV, Stevens didn't sound like a washed-up athlete clinging to a threadbare identity.

The answer, of course, is that most professional athletes define themselves in terms of their athletic accomplishments. That's who they are. They look in a mirror and see an all-star, or a champion, or perhaps an Eclipse winner or a record-holder. Take that away, strip them of their identity, and they often have nothing to warm themselves against the harsh, cold reality of their own ordinariness. The great Eddie Arcaro once said that without horse racing he'd be just another little guy in a suit.

And few things in sports are more disturbing or disheartening than the spectacle of an athlete clinging to a tattered identity: Johnny Unitas playing for the Chargers, or not playing, as it turned out, but yielding to a rookie named Dan Fouts; Willie Mays dropping a fly ball in his final season, which was little more than a publicity stunt for the lowly Mets; Emmitt Smith getting tackled for a loss in the Arizona backfield; Terrell Owens catching passes for the Allen Wranglers. With the possibility that such ignominy can always become the final chapter to an otherwise glorious career, the poet A. E. Housman could even find solace in an athlete's "dying young."

But in his announcement on HRTV, Stevens didn't sound like a washed-up athlete clinging to a threadbare identity. Willing to toss old definitions aside after a road-to-Damascus experience, he sounded eager to redefine himself. He sounded like a person reinvigorated by good health -- he feels better than he has in many years, he said -- and like a person whose passion for the game has been rekindled. Accepting his limitations, the Hall of Fame jockey said that during this comeback he doesn't intend to ride each and every day, nor does he expect to top the standings anywhere. He explained that he's coming back because he's eager to participate in the development of some "good racehorses."

Still, even if ventured for the right reasons, a comeback always risks humiliation, such as Muhammad Ali's in his final fight, a loss to the otherwise inconsequential Trevor Berbick. Twenty years after winning seven gold medals in Munich, Mark Spitz floundered in his effort to make another Olympic team. As if actually trying to redefine himself as an anachronism, Bjorn Borg used a wooden racket in a winless but brief comeback. Even such a godling as Michael Jordan seemed flummoxed in his second comeback, with the Wizards. And, of course, Brett Favre's comeback in Minnesota was as painful for fans to watch as it was for the quarterback to endure.

On the other hand, nothing inspires like a glorious comeback. From an auto accident in which he was broken quite literally from his shoulder to his foot, Ben Hogan came back and became the first golfer to win three majors in a single year. George Foreman came back and redefined himself at age 45 as the most congenial champion in boxing history. Lester Piggott, after being jailed a year for tax fraud, returned to the saddle at age 55 and 10 days later rode Royal Academy to victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

And so which will it be for Gary Stevens? After a glorious comeback, will he go out perhaps as the great Johnny Longden did in 1966, when, at age 59, in his final ride, he won the San Juan Capistrano with George Royal? Or will Stevens, who has been capricious in the past, decide after a few races that he'll redefine himself in somewhat different terms?

Compared to the great jockeys of the 1980s and 1990s, today's seem to lack style and panache. How many, if any, can compare to Angel Cordero, Chris McCarron, Pat Day, Laffit Pincay Jr., Jerry Bailey, Eddie Delahoussaye or, yes, Gary Stevens? However this comeback goes and however long it lasts, racing will benefit from Stevens' return. And here anyway, it's hoped that Stevens' comeback is both extended and glorious.