In his first race in more than seven years, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens felt the thrill of being in front heading for the wire. But the exhilaration was short-lived as his mount Jebrica was passed in deep stretch.
Stevens, riding for the first time since November 2005, finished third aboard Jebrica Jan. 6 in a $50,000 claiming race on the turf at Santa Anita Park.
R & R Warren's Jebrica, a Washington-based 5-year-old gelding trained by Jim Penney and assistants Kay and Bryson Cooper, had the lead at the sixteenth pole. But in spite of strong urging from Stevens, the bay could not hold off the late charge of Maybe Tuesday, who won the one-mile test by a neck with Aaron Gryder aboard. Deacon Speakin' nosed 11-2 third choice Jebrica for second.
"I thought, 'Man, this is going to be a storybook comeback.' It wasn't meant to be, but it was close enough," said Stevens, who was forced to retire in 2005 with chronic knee ailments. "That's the first time I've knuckled down on one in seven years, and it felt good."
Two months shy of his 50th birthday, Stevens announced Jan. 3 that he would launch his comeback. He had spent the preceding couple of months preparing for his return in what he called "a boot-camp type program" at the Pro Sports Club's 20/20 lifestyles program in Bellevue, Wash.
"It feels good to get the cobwebs out, and I feel good,'' Stevens added.
Stevens had Jebrica perfectly positioned after taking the lead out of the gate and settling into second along the inside behind pacesetter Rock This Way, ridden by Tyler Baze. Tracking the leader while racing at the rail alongside even-money choice Jimmy Simms, Jebrica advanced between horses to challenge at mid-stretch and took a narrow lead as Rock This Way and Jimmy Simms gave way.
"I rode long enough to know that turning into the backside, I was going to be loaded coming into the stretch," Stevens said. "I was looking over at Julien [Leparoux on Jimmy Simms], and he was just to my outside and had some horse. I knew I was going to be able to float out coming into the lane. Tyler's horse floated out just a tad coming out off the turn. It was a perfect trip, and like I said, it felt really good."
But in the final strides, Stevens and Jebrica were overtaken on the outside by the fast-closing Maybe Tuesday with Deacon Speakin' also rallying from far back with Garrett Gomez for the place spot.
Maybe Tuesday paid $13 for the win. The final time was 1:34.05 over firm ground.
"My horse is a game horse and just kept on trying," said winning jockey Gryder. "He was just able to out-foot them the last sixteenth of a mile. Gary looked good and it was fun to have him back in the jocks' room."
A three-time winner of both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes and a two-time Preakness winner, Stevens also counts eight Breeders' Cup World Championships scores among his 4,888 wins to date.
Stevens will have some time to mull his first race back. He is not scheduled to ride again until Jan. 11 in the third race at Santa Anita. He has the assignment on Diamond A Racing's maiden homebred Readyforhercloseup for trainer Richard Mandella.
In announcing his decision to resume riding, the popular Stevens said he plans to continue his jobs with HRTV and NBC Sports as a racing analyst and will be selective in how many races he rides in.