VICE Sports Q&A: Legendary Jockey Gary Stevens on Ponies, Pills, and Racing at 53

Before he returns to Churchill Downs this Satruday for the 142nd Kentucky Derby, Gary Stevens sits down for a wide-ranging conversation on his historic career in horse racing and the challenges he's overcome to still be riding at 53.

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May 6 2016, 4:50pm

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Gary Stevens rode Kentucky Derby winners in 1988 (Winning Colors), 1995 (Thunder Gulch), and 1997 (Silver Charm). He also won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes three times apiece. He was inducted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1997.

A series of knee injuries finally pushed Stevens to retire from racing in 2005. He worked for seven years as an analyst on NBC, did some acting, and then returned to the track in 2013. He won his first race back, and then won the Preakness in 2014. He was forced to undergo a total knee replacement surgery later that year. He was 51 years old. But instead of retiring, he returned to the track again. Less than four months after the surgery, Stevens was riding in the Breeders' Cup. Now 53, and a grandfather, he is still racing. On Saturday, he returns to Churchill Downs for the 142nd Kentucky Derby, where he'll be riding Mor Spirit.

VICE Sports: It's been a long ride.

Gary Stevens: Believe it or not, I think I am enjoying myself more right now than I have at any point during my career. I am at peace with myself and with the things that have happened. I've been able to look back and reflect on the retirements, the comebacks, and the knee replacement. I'm riding some of the best horses in the world and I am riding for some of the best trainers in the world and best owners. It doesn't get any better than that.

Read More: American Pharoah Was Born to Breed

It hasn't been all roses, though. You've had a lot of obstacles thrown in your path along the way. When you were six years old, you were diagnosed with a degenerative disease.

I had a great doctor who discovered the problem. It's called Legg-Perthes disease. It was a hip-joint disease. There was a lack of blood supply. I had to wear a full-length brace for eighteen months. I had to learn to ride a bike with one leg. I had no idea how it was going to turn out. I was young and naive. I just figured it was just going to get better. Dr. Blickenstaff was my savior back then, and my mom and my dad were my saviors because they got me to the doctor in time so that it wasn't something that I couldn't overcome.

That turned out to be the leg that I have had all the trouble with. It was always weaker and the muscle wasn't what it needed to be. I think that's where a lot of the knee problems came from.

Those knee problems forced your retirements from racing. You retired in 2005 and you worked in broadcasting. You got into acting and had featured roles in the movie Seabiscuit and the TV series Luck. What was it like for you to be away from the sport, or not as close as when you were jockeying?

Age is wisdom if you use it the right way. Sitting there, observing races every single day for seven years, I think it helped my abilities as a jockey and the way I approached races. I don't have to worry about proving myself now, but I did when I first came back. I knew I had a big hill to climb and then, when I had the knee replacement, I had to do it all over again.

People were like, "He's going to ride with a fake knee?"

Let's talk about that. It was 2014 and your knee was shot. You had to have it replaced. In your wildest dreams, did you think that you could ever come back from that surgery and race again at the level that you have?

I was hoping that I could. Dr. Yun, at St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica, did the replacement. It wasn't a question of whether I wanted it. I had to have a knee replacement or I was going to lose my leg. I had an infection in it. They got rid of the infection and then my orthopedic doctors said, "No more needles in there! You are done."

When I sat on Dr. Yun's examination table, he said, "How far do you need to be able to bend this thing to be able to compete?" He started bending it and bending it and bending it to a point where it would not bend any further. I said, "Right there." I had tears in my eyes.

He said, "Now, how far do you need to bend it, not to just compete but to win?" I smiled and that's when I knew that he was my guy. He gave me plenty of encouragement, and my work ethic, coming back from all the previous knee surgeries, was pretty good. I knew that I was going to have to re-prove myself and I started from Day One working at coming back.

What was the process like to get yourself back in the saddle to the point where you knew that you could compete?

I was on prescribed painkillers and I got addicted, to the point where I was getting pretty difficult to be around. I didn't even like myself when I looked in the mirror. So, I went up into my bedroom, one day, and I took all my medications and flushed them down the toilet. I packed a duffel bag and went down to my motor home in Del Mar. I went by myself and locked myself in for seven days. I went through the sweats and the nightmares and everything and just did it. That is when everything turned the corner. I got better and my knee got better.

You got off painkillers going cold turkey, by yourself, in a motor home?

Yes, sir! (Laugh)

I had been through it before. Painkillers are no good, but they were part of my rehab for a lot of different years. You are rehabbing an injury, but you are getting addicted to something else. It's not a lot of fun, but it was something that I knew was coming and, thank god, I was able to overcome.

Stevens riding Mucho Macho Man at the 30th Breeders Cup. Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

What is it about the sport that would drive you to want to go through knee replacement surgery, at the age of 51, to come back and do this all again?

Riding horses is a hobby for me. I love to play golf. It is probably my only other hobby. I would rather go out and ride a racehorse on a Saturday afternoon than go out to the golf course and play golf. When I win a horse race, I come home a lot happier than when I go out and shoot 89 or 90 at the golf course and come home in a bad mood.

I am getting paid, and paid well, to go out and ride some of the fastest four-legged athletes in the world. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't doing it for the money, because I probably wouldn't go out there (with an ambulance chasing me around while I am doing my job every day) if I wasn't getting paid, but I love what I do. I've been doing it a long time and I am still capable of doing it.

How long will I do it? I can't see myself doing it for more than a couple more years. I'm 53 right now. It is a risky business. I've got a six-year-old daughter. I've got four grandkids. I've got people that care about me. I know what I do is dangerous, but there are still a few more things that I want to accomplish before I step away.

You were on Firing Line in the Kentucky Derby last year. You finished right behind American Pharoah in that race. Did you know that horse had the kind of stuff to break the 37-year drought of Triple Crown winners?

I felt like he was something special going into the Kentucky Derby and watching his preliminary races, but the way he ran in the Kentucky Derby? That wasn't the American Pharoah that we came to know in the Preakness and the Belmont and the Breeders' Cup Classic. He didn't show up in the Kentucky Derby, and my horse ran a heck of a race.

I really thought I could beat him in the Preakness, but Firing Line stumbled at the start. It wouldn't have mattered if he had stumbled or not because nobody was going to beat American Pharoah that day in the pouring-down rain. When he won like he did in the Preakness, I knew, barring any stumble at the start or something like that, that we were going to get our Triple Crown winner.

It was something that I had been looking forward to since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978. That's what hooked me on being a jockey. I have an older brother, Scott, who is a jockey. He is the same age as Stevie Cauthen. Scott was my idol, but seeing Steve Cauthen on the cover of Sports Illustrated and on TIME Magazine with a cigar in his mouth and a tear coming down his cheek—I think the headline said, "THE FIRST SIX-MILLION DOLLAR MAN."

He was the first jockey to earn $6 million. I was fourteen years old and I was like, "I want to do that some day. I want to be on the cover of something." It was fun watching American Pharoah do what he did last year.

Time to talk Kentucky Derbies. Your first win was in 1988 on Winning Colors. You got the roses. What was that experience like for you?

It was the best feeling that I had ever had other than watching my children be born. It was a dream come true. It was, sort of, an out-of-body experience. I couldn't believe that it was happening to me, but it was. I thought about my parents. I thought about my grandparents and my brother. They say that right before you die your whole life passes before you rapidly. That happened to me in the last six seconds of that race. I was in tune with my horse and everything, but there were other things going through my mind when I knew I was going to win that race. It gave me this hunger.

The first Kentucky Derby win was great! The second one was better than the first. The third one was better than the first and the second. I guess that is why I am still doing what I am doing. I have won more valuable races, throughout the world, but there is no race that means as much to me as the Kentucky Derby does.

Stevens as jockey George Woolf in Seabiscuit.

What is it about the Kentucky Derby?

When I was a little kid growing up, I wanted to be a professional football player. In your mind, you put yourself in the middle of the stadium at the Super Bowl. There are three seconds left to play. The score is tied and you throw the winning touchdown pass. There is all the glory, all the screaming, and everything. That is what the Kentucky Derby is.

Every jockey's first goal is, "I want to ride in the Kentucky Derby." Once you ride in the Kentucky Derby, it's not good enough just to ride. You want to win the Kentucky Derby. There is a passion. There is a hunger. It's not something that I can really explain to people what the feeling is like, but I can share it with the guys who have done it. When a jock wins his first Kentucky Derby, he becomes a part of a club. When they come back in the jocks' room, we say, "Welcome to the club," because they know.

When you are in the jockeys' room, what is that like? Is it like a basketball locker room? Is there camaraderie? After all, you are not on the same team. You are competing against each other. So, how does that play out?

I spend, sometimes, thirteen hours a day in that locker room. It is my home away from home. I have my valets, throughout the country, in the different jocks' rooms. I am very comfortable because I've been around so long (laughs). There is no other place like it.

We are not on the same team, but there is camaraderie and there are also enemies. When you are on a circuit like Southern California, we are racing against each other throughout the year. We go out there and we are going forty miles an hour, with a lot of money on the line, and it is dangerous. When you see that camaraderie is when there is a spill. When there is an accident, I don't care who it is, it gets quiet in the jocks' room. We say prayers every day before we go out.

We may not like one of the guys that we are running against, but there is a lot of respect. In the old days—when I was riding with Bill Shoemaker, Chris McCarron, Lafit Pincay Jr., and all those guys—when you got beat in a race, we'd shake hands and take our hats off. "You just took me to the hoop, man." It made you a better rider.

I don't see that as much now as I did back in those days, but there is a respect in there. It is a different place, being in that locker room, but it is a great place.

How have you changed as a rider from your early days to now at the age of 53?

I think I am a lot more patient than I was when I was younger. I have ridden for some of the best horsemen in the world and, hopefully, I have picked up some good horsemanship from them. I am understanding the horses a lot better than I did when I was younger.

I know that there are certain goals for the horses. There is a final day that is going to be set for that horse's last race—that's what you want to be the biggest event of their year. It's like when we were kids, running in high school, and you push yourself to the limit and you feel those lungs burn. You tend to not want to do that again, so you hold something back. I think horses are the same way. I always tell myself, "Never let them feel their lungs burn until that one special day, because they are never going to repeat that performance again." It is all about building and teaching them and looking for that great effort.

Stevens with fellow jockey Pat Day at Churchill Downs. Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

You have said that one of your greatest joys is teaching young horses. What can you teach a horse?

The same things that I learned as a jockey: patience and cooperation. When I was young, I think I tried to scare horses into running. Now I try to coax them into running. I've been known to be able to get along with some difficult fillies and, sometimes, difficult colts. I am not against letting them think that they are the boss at certain times. We are a team and if I can make them happy, they are going to make me happy and do the right things.

Now that we have gotten to know each other, I feel I can ask you a personal question: Do jockeys have to wear jockeys or can you choose any underwear that you like?

You can choose whatever you like. There might even be a few guys going commando out there.

Oh no!

We can go with what we want.

You may have heard that people actually wager on your races and some people wager a lot of money. Do you ever hear these folks as you go around the paddock and head out to the track? Do you feel a responsibility to them in any way?

I absolutely feel a responsibility. The bettors are the ones who drive our sport. That's what makes the purse money that we are running for. Without the fans, we don't have a sport.

Sometimes you will hear something when you are going out for a race if there is a pick six on the line or something like that. They will say, "Hey! We need you here."

I get more after a race, coming back. I remember when I first came to Santa Anita—I came from small tracks in Idaho. I had never ridden in front of crowds like we get here at Santa Anita. There were about 65,000-70,000 people here one day. I came back after a race and they were booing Shoemaker and he just smiled. He looked up in the crowd and he just smiled.

A couple years later, I got beat on a favorite and I was walking back. The crowd sounded like a wave, just booing me and heckling. Shoe came up behind me and said, "Well, you made it son."

You have to learn to deal with it and put your feelings aside. That was one of the great things about Shoemaker. He was so even-keeled. He would go out and ride in a million-dollar race and he would come back in the jocks' room, you didn't know if he had won by a nose or got beat by a nose.

Let me ask you about making weight: Can you live a normal life and be a jockey when you have to stay under 120 pounds?

It's easier for me now, believe it or not, than it was when I was younger. I don't kill myself. The lowest weight that I will normally do is 118, which means that I have to weigh 115 because they weigh you with your equipment. Think about it. That's three pounds of equipment, not counting my helmet or my vest protector. That's my lightest saddle and everything.

We are trying to get the scale of weights raised a couple of pounds because, let's face it, we are building them bigger now than they did when horse racing started and we are racing with the same scale of weights that they used in the 1930s. You look at our kids nowadays. Both of my boys are almost six feet tall. I'd like to see, at some point, the scale of weights go up. It would be a lot healthier for all of us.

I remember interviewing Laffit Pincay Jr. many years ago about some of the things that guys would do to make weight. He said, "Some nights I would chew on a piece of meat, just to get the taste, and then I would spit it out. I'd chew on a piece of fish and then I'd spit it out." It was really extreme stuff.

I take a lot better care of myself now than I did when I was younger. We've got nutritionists involved now, and protein diets. We know when we need to get some carbs in us. I think the nutrition is a lot better now. We know a lot more about supplements, vitamins, and those sorts of things that help us, but you see these seventeen- and eighteen-year-old kids who are trying to weigh 105 pounds to do 108 pounds and it is sad. It is dangerous. It is not good.

What is your guilty pleasure when you want to taste something good?

I used to love Snickers bars and I can't remember the last time that I had a piece of candy. I like my beer at night. My light beer. I've got to have a couple of light beers at night. That's probably about as good as it gets. Oh. I like my potatoes, too. Being from Idaho, I like my potatoes and they are not good for me. (Laughs.)

Final question for you: 1988. You won the Kentucky Derby, then hopped on a plane and went directly to Hollywood Park, in southern California, and rode Seven Mounts. Now Hollywood Park has been demolished. It is going to be replaced by the new NFL stadium for the Rams. When you fly into LAX, you don't see that great racetrack anymore. A lot of area residents are excited to have the Rams back in Los Angeles, but when you see that landmark gone, what goes through your mind?

It is sad. It is really sad. The track, the lakes, and flowers—there was a lot of history there. Time marches on. Sports marches on. I'm just thankful that we still have Santa Anita and Los Alamitos and the great Del Mar race course.

I'm getting season tickets to the Rams and I am actually glad that they tore down Hollywood Park because it was sad to drive by it, or fly over it, and see that track vacant. Now we are going to get a great stadium in there and the Rams coming back. So, I am excited about that.