Normally, a horse called Branding winning a seven-furlong maiden special weight race at Santa Anita recently would not have sent a tremor through my organs, not even if I’d backed it.
But then this contest was not about a horse. It was about a jockey. And that jockey’s name is Gary Stevens.
It was career win 4,889 for Stevens and came seven years after his previous victory and retirement. Now he’s back and fear once again stalks my realm.
In general, I have found there are two types of jockey. One category can put up with journalists as fellow toilers in a sport of myriad and colourful opinions. The other would like to set fire to the press room. As far as I am concerned at least, I think Gary falls into the latter camp.
It all started so well at a Hollywood Park Breeders’ Cup, when I interviewed the great man for the first time. He was confident and helpful, dressed in jeans and wearing cowboy boots. I observed he could be in the movies, which turned out to be a rare correct racing prediction.
At that stage, Stevens had taken 57 Breeders’ Cup mounts for four wins, a mediocre tally for a man of his standing. I asked him about this and he was immediately defensive. This was a warning.
Hey buddy – I have one person to prove something to and that’s Gary Stevens, not the punter
Around 18 months later, Stevens was in the UK on a riding tour he hoped would last five years but ultimately stretched to 11 weeks. An early marquee ride was on Beat All in the Derby, for which he got advice from Lester Piggott. “He told me that if I’m riding the best horse I’ll win,” Stevens reported. “At least I think that’s what he said.”
The knives were out early, as they always seem to be when a foreign jockey enters a different jurisdiction. “I don’t even think that Gary Stevens is that great a jockey in America,” one local rider told me at the time. “So he’s certainly not going to be that great over here.”
The man from Idaho never achieved wide betting shop or public acceptance because his measured American style did not sit well with punters happier with Kieren Fallon’s kitchen sink approach.
One bold day on the Knavesmire I decided to bring all this up with Gary on the white wooden seats outside the York weighing-room. I’ve done longer interviews, in truth.
Gary has won three Kentucky Derbys, eight Breeders’ Cup races and the Eclipse Award as America’s outstanding jockey of 1998. It’s a somewhat better riding record than mine. He probably imagined this when I asked him about the criticism he’d received.
“Hey buddy, I never get riled,” he said, “but you’ve riled me real good.” My animal cunning told me the conversation was not going the right way.
“I have one person to prove something to and that’s Gary Stevens, and I’ve done that,” he added. “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone in betting shops. I’m not worried about the punters in betting shops. I’m worried about what the trainer I’m riding for says and what the owner says. They’re the only people I have to please: the ones who hire me. I don’t care what the guy in the betting shop says. I’m not working for him.
“It’s unfortunate that I’m riled up just as I’m getting to leave. You may think I’m an ass, but I’m just being straight with you, telling it how it is. I should say that my record speaks for itself. Don’t ask me to brag. You’ve got the statistics there. I’ve proved that I can win races with my own style. I’ve been doing that for 20 years. I’ve adapted the way I’ve needed to for the racing over here, but I’m not going to beat the hell out of a horse to win. I haven’t needed to, have I?”
This could have been a chance, a semi-question I could have leapt on to defuse the situation. But I was too busy looking for an escape route. I did manage to say I was sorry if I had upset him, as he suggested we bring our chat to a conclusion. And then he left, without arranging a dinner date or swapping phone numbers. Contact broken.
But now that Gary is back in the saddle it would be nice to think we could hook up again and continue our debate on riding technique. After all, I’ve ridden only one fewer winner than him over the last seven years.