Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens launches a second comeback in as many years on Friday aboard Sivoliere in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.
This time, it’s different. Stevens says he is now pain free, following right knee replacement surgery three months ago.
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”I didn’t make the decision, it was made for me” Stevens said Thursday. ”The knee was completely shot.”
The 51-year-old last rode on July 25, ending a remarkable return last season that produced a Preakness win aboard Oxbow, and a pair of Breeders’ Cup triumphs with Mucho Macho Man in the Classic and Beholder in the Distaff.
The knee forced Stevens into retirement in 2005. He never drifted far from the sport, working as a television analyst. And he never lost the desire to ride.
The fact that he returned and won again at the highest level was remarkable. It was also short-lived, as the ever-constant pain became unbearable last summer.
Stevens sought relief, having the joint injected with a lubricant that had worked in the past. This time the leg ballooned.
”My leg had swollen bigger than I’d ever seen it,” he said. ”I was pretty much in a fetal position, in agony.”
The knee was drained, and Stevens got the news he knew was coming. A total knee replacement was the only solution.
Stevens steadily worked his way back into shape, relying heavily on a mechanical horse that replicates a riding motion.
”With the new knee, I feel like I’m back in the cockpit of a jet fighter flying it, instead of being a passenger,” he said.
Rich Tapestry embodies the international sprit of the Breeders’ Cup, racing’s world championships.
The 6-year-old gelding was bred in Ireland, has a Chinese trainer, Michael Chang, and a jockey, Olivier Doleuze, from France.
And he has a big shot to win the $1.5 million Sprint on Saturday as the 5-1 second-choice behind Secret Circle, last year’s winner and the 9-2 favorite.
Rich Tapestry, the first Hong Kong-based horse to compete in the Breeders’ Cup, is making a second straight start here. He rallied to win the Santa Anita Sprint Championship in his U.S. debut earlier this month, beating a quality field. Defending Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents finished second with Secret Circle third.
Chang started thinking about the Breeders’ Cup in March, after Rich Tapestry ran a close second in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Chang found a supporter in Bill Nader, the former American racing executive who now runs the racing operation of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Nader urged Chang to explore the Breeders’ Cup. Chang felt the horse, who has spent much of his 27-race career running on grass, needed at least one prep race. That led to the victory in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship.
A safer and cleaner Breeders’ Cup is the goal this year, according to a panel of racing officials and leading veterinarians supervising the two-day event.
The main track at Santa Anita has been completely replaced, using dirt from a source close to Los Angeles International Airport.
On the medication front, the Breeders’ Cup, Santa Anita and the California Horse Racing Board have stepped up security and enforcement efforts to weed out illegal drug use and monitor the soundness of the participating horses.
The Breeders’ Cup will be run under newly enacted national uniform medication reforms adopted in California and currently in the process of being adopted and implemented in other racing jurisdictions across the United States.
The effort involves more extensive testing, especially for corticosteroid abuse.
”I think the restrictions on corticosteroids are a major step forward for the safety of horses, which is a national effort,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the CHRB.
Ten more years
NBC will remain the broadcast home of the Breeders’ Cup for 10 more years in a contract extension announced Thursday.
The network will hold the rights through 2025 to present the races on NBC and its cable affiliate NBCSN.
NBC also televises all three legs of the Triple Crown.