NEW ORLEANS — It’s been eight years since jockey Gary Stevens competed at the Fair Grounds and Race Course.
Of course, until last month, it had been a while since the Racing Hall of Fame inductee has ridden anywhere.
That all changed in January, when, after a successful second career as a broadcaster, author and actor, Stevens announced he was returning from his seven-year-plus retirement. That’s despite the fact Stevens, who has won multiple Triple Crown races, turns 50 in less than two weeks.
Judging from his performances over the past few weeks, it appears the racing legend hasn’t lost the magic. Nine days after his news conference, Stevens posted the first win of his comeback. He then promptly won his first after-retirement graded stakes race when he piloted Slim Shadey to the winners circle at the San Marcos Stakes.
Now, eight years after his last win at the Fair Grounds — for the record, it was the 2005 Risen Star Stakes — a slimmed down, newly buff Stevens returns to the New Orleans facility Friday to ride in five contests, including the $200,000, Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes aboard Midnight Ballet and the $400,000, Grade II Risen Star with Proud Strike.
Stevens’ presence at the Fair Grounds will be one of the highlights of the course’s Louisiana Derby Preview Day.
“I’m excited about coming (to the Fair Grounds),” Stevens said. “I have five mounts, and I’m looking forward to all five, especially the Risen Star and Rachel Alexandra. I’m looking forward to my opportunities (Friday).”
Having a Hall of Fame jockey in the house should be a huge boost to the Fair Grounds’ reputation as perhaps the premier winter meet location in the country, said Fair Grounds Vice President of Racing Eric Halstrom.
“We’re thrilled,” Halstrom said. “To have him give the time to come to the Fair Grounds on his comeback is really inspiring. It’s a feather in everyone’s cap to have a jockey as high a quality as a Hall of Famer.”
However, because it’s been so long since Stevens has jockeyed in New Orleans, and because all of his mounts Friday are being brought in from Kentucky or Virginia, there aren’t many regulars in the Fair Grounds’ barns who’ve had much experience working with Stevens, a fact that highlights both the length of his retirement and his status as an elite jockey.
But one local who has worked with Stevens, albeit rarely, is Al Stall Jr., a New Orleans-based trainer who said Stevens “might have ridden a horse or two for us here and there.” Even with that, Stall said, he’s glad to see Stevens back on the scene.
“I’m happy for him for doing such good things for himself,” Stall said.
“I’m happy for him in his comeback if he approaches it right.”
And from what Stall can tell, Stevens is doing all the right things. The New Orleans trainer noted that Stevens attended a workout “boot camp” and cut down drastically on his vices to drop about 20 pounds to prepare for the saddle again.
“You can tell on TV,” Stall said. “He looks like a different person. He looks great.”
Stall also pointed out that even before Stevens’ retirement, the rider had branched out into other lucrative pursuits, such as a TV commentator, the author of his 2002 autobiography and an actor whose most well known credits include portraying George Woolf in “Seabiscuit” and earning a regular role on the HBO series “Luck.”
Because of that, Stall said, Stevens’ comeback seems to stem from a lifelong, impossible-to-shake love of racing.
“He’s obviously not hurting in his wallet,” Stall said. “He (came back) so he could be aboard some great horses again.”
Just as New Orleans will be glad to welcome Stevens back here today, the jockey is excited about returning here.
“It’s a great treat to be down at one of the best tracks in the U.S.,” Stevens said. “I always enjoy coming into the Fair Grounds to ride.”