Gary Stevens: The Triple Crown's main man
By Dave Johnson
Special to ESPN.com
In the last 15 years, the most interesting participant in the quest for the Triple Crown has to be Gary Stevens.
The Idaho native didn't even start riding thoroughbred racehorses until after Affirmed captured the crown in 1978, but he has found himself at the center -- sometimes as the spoiler -- to racing's most coveted prize.
Let's look back at the role one man has played in some Triple Crown near misses.
In 1988, Stevens won the Derby on Winning Colors, beating Risen Star and Forty Niner. Then Risen Star, a son of Secretariat, came back to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Another fine horse who came away with two outta three.
Two years later, another fascinating Triple Crown. Gary was aboard Silver Charm for victory in Louisville, but when the circus went to Baltimore, many thought Touch Gold the horse to beat -- including Stevens.
I remember running into Gary in a restaurant in Mt. Washington, near Pimlico, the night before that Preakness. He said that Chris McCarron probably didn't know how good Touch Gold was. Gary had ridden him in California during the Santa Anita meet and knew that to win the blanket of black-eyed susans, he would have to defeat Touch Gold.
Of course Gary could never have taken off the Derby winner, but if I had to guess, I'd bet he would have preferred to be on Touch Gold in the second leg of the Crown that year. Luck went his way when Touch Gold stumbled at the start, and was checked on the backstretch. Gary and Silver Charm won it.
But Touch Gold did not stumble in New York, and denied Silver Charm and Stevens the Triple Crown.
In 1998, it was Stevens who was the spoiler. Real Quiet won the Derby and the Preakness and looked to have the Crown wrapped up when Kent Desormeaux had him in front by five lengths in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes. And then along came Gary.
In one of the greatest rides in history, Stevens and Victory Gallop caught Real Quiet by a nose to win the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion.
Gary retired in December of 1999 with a set of aching knees, but not before he had ridden a colt named Anees to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile the month before.
It must have been tough to sit on the other side of the rail at the 2000 Kentucky Derby as an assistant trainer for Thoroughbred Corp., while Anees ran 13th to winner Fusaichi Pegasus. That was the only the second time Gary had missed riding in America's greatest race since his Derby debut aboard Tank's Prospect in 1985!
Stevens came out of retirement in late 2000, and was back in the Triple Crown limelight just a few months later with Derby favorite Point Given. After suicidal early fractions, on a phony-fast racetrack, the Bob Baffert-trainee finished fifth to Monarchos. But it was Point Given, Baffert, Thoroughbred Corp. and Stevens who reigned supreme at Pimlico and Belmont Park, winning the Preakness, the Belmont ... and the fans back as well.
So here we are now in 2002 with another Triple Crown on the line, and once again Stevens looks to have a key role in the drama, this time going against his Triple Crown teammates from last year. Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem -- like Point Given, trained by Baffert for Thoroughbred Corp. -- will have to beat Gary and his mount Sunday Break to the finish line at Belmont Park in order to capture the triangular shaped trophy that has gone unclaimed for the past 24 years.
But can Stevens really win the Belmont a fourth time?
Sunday Break (a son of Forty Niner, who Stevens beat in the 1988 Kentucky Derby aboard Winning Colors) showed a relaxed power winning the mile-and-an-eighth Peter Pan this past Saturday. He appeared much more mature and quite a bit stronger than he looked finishing third in the April 13 Wood Memorial. After The Peter Pan, his trainer, Neil Drysdale held court in the winners circle and said Gary didn't even start to ride Sunday Break until the furlong marker. Believe me, it was more like the sixteenth pole.
There's no denying Sunday Break has what it takes to win the Belmont Stakes, especially when you know who will be sitting on his back.