HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Gary Stevens got his first look at the new Gulfstream Park last winter when he attended the annual Eclipse Awards dinner.
On Saturday, the 50-year-old Hall of Fame jockey will return to Gulfstream with an entirely different perspective.
“I’m excited,” said Stevens, who rode Mucho Macho Man to victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Awesome Again (G1) last year. “I’m going there to do business. It’s a big day for me, not only with Macho but I’ve got a big day ahead of me. I’m just trying to concentrate on the duties at hand.”
Saturday will be the first time that Stevens has ridden at Gulfstream since finishing eighth with High Star in the Florida Derby (G1) on March 16, 2002.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, Stevens retired for a second time in 2005 before returning at the start of last year, one where the Idaho native won 69 races – nine of them Grade 1 stakes – and $11.9 million from 383 mounts, including his first Breeders’ Cup Classic.
He has kept in touch with both trainer Kathy Ritvo and Finn Green, racing manager for Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, which owns Mucho Macho Man. The 6-year-old son of Macho Uno is making his season debut in the Sunshine Millions Classic for the third consecutive year and is listed as the 2-5 program favorite in a field of six.
“It’s obviously a steppingstone for the 2014 season,” Stevens said. “I talked to both Finn and Kathy and I know that the horse is doing well. There’s no such thing as easy races, I don’t care what they look like on paper. I’m looking forward to getting back there and getting 2014 kicked off the right way.”
Stevens, two-for-two on Mucho Macho Man, is the ninth jockey to ride the multiple stakes winner, following fellow Hall of Famers Edgar Prado and Mike Smith, along with Ramon Dominguez, Rajiv Maragh, Eibar Coa, David Cohen, Garrett Gomez and Luis Arango.
“Two-for-two says it all,” Ritvo said. “He’s done a great job with him. He’s ridden him flawlessly. Gary’s just so smart and so patient, and the horse appreciates both of those things. He’s a great rider. He gets along with Macho really well, and I know Macho appreciates Gary taking really good care of him.”
A winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes three times each, the Preakness twice including last year with Oxbow, and 10 Breeders’ Cup races, Stevens had heady praise for Mucho Macho Man, who he puts among the best horses he has ridden.
“We just clicked,” Stevens said. “People say, ‘How do you know when you’re going to get along with a horse?’ I say, ‘About five seconds after my rear hits the saddle.’ He’s got a presence about him. He’s a very confident horse, and he gives me a lot of confidence when I’m on his back.
“There’s only a handful of horses that I’ve ridden that have given me the same feeling he gives me. He gives me just a feeling of confidence, from the time he warms up in the post parade to the entire part of the race. He’s just full of confidence.”
In addition to the Sunshine Millions Classic, Stevens will ride 9-5 program favorite Wishing Gate in the $150,000 Filly & Mare Turf, and Old Time Hockey in the $150,000 Turf. Both horses are trained by Tom Proctor.
Based in California, Stevens plans to stick around South Florida for a few days to ride as well as visit family. His son, Tory, is in his second year as a trainer and first stabled for the winter at Gulfstream.
Before that, Stevens is up against Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario for the Eclipse Award as top jockey of 2013. Mucho Macho Man is a finalist for both older male and Horse of the Year, all of which could make Saturday a spectacular occasion for the entire team.
“You never want to get your hopes up too high and set yourself up for a downfall. I’m only thinking about the races right now,” Stevens said. “We’ll worry about Saturday night after the races are over with. I have a lot of business to tend to before that.”