Horseracing

Stevens returns to saddle at age 49

BACK IN THE SADDLE
Gary Stevens rides Point Given to victory in the 2001 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
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LOS ANGELES (AP)

Two months shy of his 50th birthday, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens is launching a comeback this weekend at Santa Anita.

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''My passion is still there,'' Stevens said Thursday in announcing his return after a seven-year retirement. ''Or I should say my passion has come back. I've worked a couple of very good horses in the morning at Santa Anita that kind of made the hair stand up on my neck, and I haven't felt that in a long time.''

Stevens' first race will be Sunday at Santa Anita, with his lone mount in a $50,000 claiming race on a horse named Jebrica.

''I'm going to be selective in what I ride. And if that means not riding at all or upsetting people, then so be it,'' he said. ''I didn't come back to ride five days a week and ride nine races a day. I came back to ride some quality horses with, hopefully, some good futures.''

He retired in November 2005 after battling knee pain that had him downing anti-inflammatories every day for the last 15 years of his career.

''Knees, they were never 100 percent, I'll tell you, but compared to my last five years of riding, they're about 120 percent now,'' Stevens said, adding that the medications damaged his liver. ''Fortunately, the liver is able to repair itself and I'm healthy.''

A member of the Hall of Fame since 1997, Stevens began riding professionally in 1979. He had 4,888 winners from 27,594 mounts, a win percentage of 17.7. He won the Kentucky Derby three times — aboard Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997. He also won the Preakness Stakes twice, the Belmont Stakes three times and eight Breeders' Cup races.

Stevens might be best known, however, for his portrayal of another jockey. He had a large role in the 2003 movie "Seabiscuit" as jockey George Woolf, a rival of Red Pollard, portrayed by Tobey Maguire.

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Stevens said he has been working with a personal trainer and attended a program in Bellevue, Wash., that taught him how to eat a diet featuring high-protein and carbohydrates along with healthy fats. In retirement, his weight reached 146 pounds, but now Stevens said he's ''down to 119 without trying.''

''I'm sleeping well, no medications,'' he said.

Stevens' wife, Angie Athayde, said: ''He cut out smoking, drinking, sugar. He went really hard-core.''

She and the couple's young daughter visited Stevens in Washington state over Thanksgiving, where food and drink were in abundance.

''I said, `Are you OK? They're drinking,''' she said of the get-together. ''He said, `It's not the drinking. It's the pie.' ''

Athayde said she's excited for him to resume riding.

''It's long overdue,'' she said. ''He's been so miserable not riding. I told him, `You've got to get back on a horse.' ''

Stevens has been working as a racing commentator for HRTV on weekends and for NBC Sports during the Triple Crown series, and he said he'll continue in those jobs while juggling his riding commitments.

The TV work provides a fallback plan if his comeback is thwarted by his knees.

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''I don't know that that pain won't come back. Only time will tell,'' Stevens said.

Then there's the danger involved in riding 1,200-pound thoroughbreds going 40 mph in a race.

''Anything can happen at any time,'' he said. ''I know being out there it's not a question of if I'm going to hit the ground, it's when. But I'm probably fitter than I've been. I know I'll able to handle the blow. The risk is worth the reward at this point.''

For now, Stevens is working without an agent to arrange his bookings on horses, although he indicated he might have one soon. He said he's looking forward to riding a few horses in particular, although he declined to provide their names.

In addition to his TV duties, Stevens has worked as a jockey agent, opened his own racing stable, and done some acting, notably the role in ''Seabiscuit.'' He also played a down-on-his-luck jockey in the HBO racing series ''Luck'' that was cancelled after a brief run last year.

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