After a stellar riding career highlighted by three Kentucky Derby wins, election to the Hall of Fame and a major role in the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit, jockey Gary Stevens moves from the saddle to the TV analyst's chair for the 132nd Run for the Roses. Stevens adds a unique perspective to TVG's countdown to the Derby as well as to NBC's Triple Crown coverage in Louisville and Baltimore (Preakness Stakes), before handing off to ABC and fellow jockey-turned-analyst Jerry Bailey for the Belmont Stakes in New York. Stevens briefly retired once before (in December 1999) but seems far more content with his decision to move on this time.
TV Guide: Is this your first Derby spent off the track since you started riding?
Gary Stevens: Well, there were a couple I missed.... In 1989 I didn't think I had a chance of winning it when Sunday Silence was around, so I was riding in England. And in 2004 I was riding in France.
TV Guide: Why does the most talented horse so rarely win this race?
Stevens: I wouldn't say the best horse rarely wins, but you need a horse that can handle adversity and also has the style to put itself in a position to handle less adversity than the rest of the horses in the field. The horses that I consider the top contenders [Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron and Barbaro] basically all have the same style of running, so what might happen is that a very fast pace [is set] early on, which may set it up for a longshot like Giacomo last year [with 50-to-1 odds] to come from way off the pace but just get the right trip and get the luck of all the gaps opening up at the right time.
TV Guide: What's it feel like to ride into the first turn among 20 horses?
Stevens: There are different feelings, depending on what you're riding. In my three Derby wins, I was well positioned and didn't have a lot of traffic problems, so they were basically very easy rides for me. I knew I was going to be probably in the top three within the first 100 yards of the race. I've been on the other end of it, too in last year's Derby on Noble Causeway, I got into some serious, serious traffic problems. I knew in the first eighth of a mile that I was done for.
TV Guide: How unusual is the size of today's Derby field?
Stevens: You never see race fields larger than 14, and even that's unique nowadays, so 20 horses is something that no one's really used to. I've ridden in 34-horse fields in Europe, but it's totally different because the straightaways are much longer.
TV Guide: How unlikely is the recent run of Triple Crown successes for Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex, whose trainers were all new to the scene?
Stevens: I halfway think that when they talk about the "Derby gods," there really are Derby gods. There just always seems to be a story that goes along with the winner of the Kentucky Derby, something that either touches your heart or makes you think about things. Maybe the story this year is [Brother Derek trainer] Dan Hendricks and [Brother Derek jockey] Alex Solis both suffering broken backs 17 days apart [in 2004].
TV Guide: Trainer Bob Baffert may have as many as three horses in this year's race. Has not really contending in Triple Crown events the last three years changed him at all?
Stevens: No, I don't think so. I think it's made him realize the passion he has for winning the race even more than, say, his first Derby win with Silver Charm [in 1997]. He knows what it takes to saddle a horse and get it across the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby. And if he's got the horse, he definitely has the training ability and training tools to get the horse there.
TV Guide: What do you think of Michael Matz's decision to rest Barbaro for five weeks leading up to the race?
Stevens: I think it's outstanding judgment. For the past 23 years, I've read all the press on certain things and how certain people are "bucking history" trying to win the Kentucky Derby. Now that I'm working for the media, I get to say "BS!" I think Matz is doing the right thing. He obviously knows his horse, and I think it's much more difficult to get a horse ready in three weeks after a grueling race and still have enough left in the tank for the Derby. I still think it comes down to who gets the best trip.
TV Guide: Is it unusual for a guy with an equestrian background like Matz to be involved in thoroughbred racing?
Stevens: More and more so now, a horseman is a horseman they can get inside a horse's head, they understand the horses. With his background in show-jumping in the Olympics [Matz won silver in 1996], he's shown he obviously can compete at a high level, and that pressure doesn't get to him.
TV Guide: Will you feel compelled to stake a few dollars on Point Determined, son of one of your greatest mounts, Point Given?
Stevens: Well, I'm not a huge gambler, but it would be really neat to see an offspring of two great horses [son of Point Given, grandson of 1996 Derby winner Thunder Gulch] win it.
TV Guide: With you, Jerry Bailey, Pat Day and Chris McCarron a combined 29 Triple Crown wins all recently retiring, does it feel like the end of an era?
Stevens: I think it is the end of an era. But throughout sports history, young athletes step up to the plate and seem to take the sport to a different level, and I think we've got some jockeys out there who will do that. I learned from Laffit Pincay and Bill Shoemaker, and I think passing on the torch to these guys... they're going to continually improve.
TV Guide: You had a prominent role in Seabiscuit. If you were to do more acting, what kind of roles would appeal to you?
Stevens: I would like to do something totally outside of horse racing, and most of the offers I've had, for whatever reason, have me playing a detective or something to do with police. I've gotten to be friends with Joe Pesci, and he said I've got "cop eyes" they don't lie.
Get more inside info on the Derby hopefuls here on TVG.com.