MIKE SMITH & GARY STEVENS By Jay Hovdey
Mike Smith and Gary Stevens can tell you the exact day and date they first met – it was April 20, 1985 – for reasons that had little to do with their common destinies as future Hall of Famers. For Stevens: “It was at Oaklawn Park. I was there to ride Tank’s Prospect in the Arkansas Derby, and it turned out to be my first win in a half-million dollar race.” For Smith: “It was my wedding day.” That’ll do. “I was packing up my stuff to leave,” Stevens recalled. “Mike comes up to me, with that ugly little fake moustache he was wearing then – you know, the kind we tried to grow before we could grow one – and he asks me for my whip, like he was looking up to me. And we were only a couple years apart.” “That’s right,” Smith said. “And then I invited him to the wedding.” Stevens was traveling with Eddie Delahoussaye, so the two of them had dinner and wandered in late to the reception. To their horror, the bar was about to close. “We had them open up again and made it a no-host bar the rest of the night,” Stevens said. “Me and Mike have been friends ever since.” That in itself is not unusual. Smith was 19 and Stevens had just turned 22, and many college age friendships have lasted a whole lot longer. What is unusual – no, downright amazing – is the fact that both Smith and Stevens are doing now what they were doing back then, which is competing at the highest levels of their profession. There may be a little less hair under their helmets, and Smith long ago abandoned that moustache, but no one is fooled. After a combined 66 years in the saddle and more than 50,000 mounts between them, Smith and Stevens can still ride rings around the competition when the money is on the line. As friends and friendly competitors, Smith and Stevens are rare.
They have spent what should have been their twilight years winning prestigious races like the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. They are in constant demand as representatives of the sport, and they have lent their names to any number of righteous causes, from jockey welfare to Thoroughbred after care. Now Stevens and Smith are stepping up to help the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation as the honorees of the 2015 fund-raising awards dinner, which has become a highlight of the summer Del Mar season and is again being held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort. The mission of the Gregson Foundation is simple and direct. It holds to the philosophy that the sons and daughters of the men and women who care for the horses that populate pari-mutuel races deserve a chance at the kind of education that will give them choices in life. Scholarships from the Gregson Foundation have helped students attend such bastions of higher learning as Columbia, UCLA, Brigham Young and Le Cordon Bleu.
Brianne O’Donoghue is studying political science at Wellesley. Ariana Reynoso, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in sociology, went to work for the non-profit Teach for America. Mary Ellet, a 2015 graduate of Chapman University, earned a place in the coveted Flying Start program sponsored by Darley.
As a couple of high school dropouts who made good,Smith and Stevens look at such young people in awe.
“I got an opportunity to ride when I was 16 years old and did pretty well from a young age,” Smith said. “At that age all you think you need is the horse — you don’t need an education. As you get older and wiser I sure wish I would have.”
“I got out of school early to ride,” said Stevens, who followed his brother, Scott, into the riding life. “But I didn’t keep a promise to my mother that I would get my GED,like my brother did.”
He was kind of busy. Stevens, an Idaho boy and the son of a trainer, set riding records at Portland Meadows and Longacres, then headed for Southern California for good in 1984, at the age of 21, where he was greeted by Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron and Eddie Delahoussaye. Stevens rode his first champion, the filly Tiffany Lass, in 1986, then in 1988 he won the first of his three Kentucky Derbies with Winning Colors. In 1990 Stevens won the national money championship.
Smith made the most of his formative years riding in his native New Mexico and throughout the Midwest.When New York beckoned in the late 1980’s, he descended upon the big-time with a vengeance, trading blows with Angel Cordero, Jose Santos, Eddie Maple and Richard Migliore. Smith rode the American-trained Fourstars Allstar to win the Irish 2,000 Guineas in 1991,the Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Lure in 1992 and ’93, and Horse of the Year Holy Bull in 1994. In 1993 and ’94 Smith was national champion in terms of money won by his mounts.
The list of great horses and historic races won by Stevens and Smith is long, and still growing. To Lure and Holy Bull, Smith added champions Inside Information,Cherokee Run, Sky Beauty, Azeri, Vindication, StardomBound and Zenyatta, as well as Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo. Tiffany Lass and Winning Colors put Stevenson the map, and then champions like Serena’s Song,Bertrando, Silverbulletday, Point Given, Beholder and Derby winners Thunder Gulch and Silver Charm have kept his name in lights.
Stevens entered the Hall of Fame in 1997. Smith followed in 2003.
Their admiration has been mutual, probably helped by the fact that they did not ride against each other on a regular basis until they were both deep into their careers.Today they occupy familiar corners of the jockey quarters at Santa Anita and Del Mar, respected brahmins of the room and yet still keen for the chase. “Of course I still watch him,” Smith said of Stevens.”It’s like in any sport, where athletes feed off their teammates and the other team. Gary will do something and I think, ‘Darn, how did he do that?’ He keeps pushing me to another level.” “He’s the only guy I know who might be more competitive than me,” Stevens said. “It’s almost like a chess match every time we go out there. I use him for a target a lot of times, and he’ll do the same. “Everybody needs a coach,” Stevens went on. “But you get to a certain stage and no one wants to coach you because they’re competing against you. Mike and I get along so good we can sit down over a glass of wine and talk about certain races, specific things we’ve done, ask each other questions, and critique ourselves.” It was only two years ago, during the spring of 2013, that Stevens and Smith gave a master-class clinic on race riding at the highest levels, which in this case was the jewels of the Triple Crown. In the Kentucky Derby, Smith was challenged with the mount on a fresh and newly blinkered Palace Malice. The colt proceeded to run the field off its feet, dragging along Stevens and Oxbow on a fast pace in the bargain. They both were well beaten by Orb, but lessons were learned. Wheeling back two weeks later in the Preakness, Stevens put Oxbow on the lead at a steady cadence – essentially running the same splits they did in the Derby – and taking the field all the way around to win by nearly two lengths. Smith, riding the stretch-running Will Take Charge, was helpless to do anything about it. But then in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later, Smith was reunited with a more sensible Palace Malice, unblinkered now and sitting on a big effort. Stevens was back aboard Oxbow. “I was laying second,” Stevens said, “and he was hounding me. I was thinking, ‘You sonofabitch. Give me a break.’ But Mike knew, and at the quarter pole when he went by me, I hollered, ‘Go get ’em!’ just like in ‘Seabiscuit.'” Palace Malice won by about three lengths and Oxbow hung on to be easily second over Orb. Stevens caught Smith on the gallop out and they celebrated their one-two classic finish, nearly 100 years between them and the rest far back. “Somebody took a picture of me and Gary coming back that day,” Smith said. “I carry it with me on my phone.” The longevity of their careers has afforded Smith and Stevens unusual opportunities beyond their domestic riding business. Stevens rode for extended periods in England, France and Hong Kong, then turned to acting during his nearly six years away from the sport while his arthritic knees got a rest. Smith never needed such a break, although six months in a body cast for a broken back in 1998 could have put an early end to a brilliant career. At one point he invested in a winery with fellow Hall of Famer Alex Solis, and he even tried his hand at acting, although the character he played in the reality show “Jockeys” was named Mike Smith.
Ed Gregson put in time as an actor before finding his true calling as a Thoroughbred trainer. By the time Stevens came around in California, Gregson already had won a Kentucky Derby with Gato del Sol. “We had a great relationship,” Stevens said. ” He was the kind of guy I could talk to, and he wasn’t afraid to become your fatherly figure to help you with things going on in your life that you didn’t think anyone even knew about. “He was one of the most caring gentlemen I’ve ever known,” Stevens added. “And not only for the equine athlete, but for the human beings surrounding them, no matter what their level of involvement.” As a passionate advocate for a better quality of life on the backstretch, Gregson was a driving force behind a fund dedicated to scholarships. In the wake of his death in 2000, the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation was established to carry on the work. Hundreds of young people have benefited since then, and now Smith and Stevens are doing their part to keep the cause alive. “It was a surprise, but about 10 years ago the Boise School District issued me an honorary high school diploma,” Stevens said. “It only took me about 30 years to get it, but I guess they figured with all my world travels and experiences I must have learned something.” And Mike? “I’ve still got Gary’s whip.”
Michael Earl “Mike” Smith (born August 10, 1965, in Roswell, New Mexico) is an American jockey who has been one of the leading riders in U.S. Thoroughbred racing since the early 1990s, inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003, and has won the most Breeders’ Cup races of any jockey. The son of a jockey, Smith began riding races in his native New Mexico at age 11, and took out a jockey’s license at age 16 in 1982. He left New Mexico the following year, riding mostly in the Midwest where he earned his apprenticeship at Canterbury Downs, Minnesota, before moving to New York in 1989. In 2000, he established his home base in Southern California. CAREER In 1991, he became one of the few American jockeys to win a European classic by claiming victory in the Irish 2,000 Guineas aboard Fourstars Allstar. Also that year he got his big break as leading jockey in New York from 1991–93, with 330, 297 and 313 wins, respectively. The following year, he rode his first Breeders’ Cup winner, Lure, in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The year after that, 1993, he truly arrived as a top jockey, setting a North American record for stakes wins in a year with 62. Among his highlights were a win in the Preakness aboard Prairie Bayou and a successful defense of the Breeders’ Cup Mile aboard Lure. That year, he won his first Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey, and also won an ESPY Award as top jockey. In 1994, he broke his own record for stakes wins with 68, 20 of them Grade I races. Several of those wins came while riding that year’s Eclipse Award Horse of the Year winner, Holy Bull. He also rode two winners in that year’s Breeders’ Cup, and again won the Eclipse Award as leading jockey. Smith went on to ride two Breeders’ Cup winners in both 1995 and 1997.
In 1994, he was voted the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for “extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship”. The dangers of Smith’s profession became evident in 1998, when he suffered major injuries in two separate spills. A broken shoulder in March took him out of action for two months. Then, in August, while leading the Saratoga meeting, he broke two vertebrae in his back, requiring him to wear a body cast for several months. He came back six months after the fall. In 2000, he moved his home base from New York to Southern California. That year he won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award that honors a rider whose career and personal conduct exemplifies the very best example of participants in the sport of thoroughbred racing. In 2002, he served as the regular rider for his second Horse of the Year, Azeri.
He rode Azeri to a win in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and also rode Vindication to a win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In 2005, he rode 50–1 longshot Giacomo to victory in the Kentucky Derby. The win, Smith’s first in the Derby, was something of a vindication for him. He was aboard Giacomo’s sire, Holy Bull, the 2–1 favorite in the 1994 Derby, but could finish only 12th after Holy Bull was bumped coming out of the starting gate. In 2008, he added two more Breeders’ Cup victories first in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Stardom Bound, and with the then 4-year-old Zenyatta in the Ladies’ Classic. A year later, Smith returned to the Breeders’ Cup with Zenyatta, this time to capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Smith partnered Zenyatta to 16 straight victories of a 19-for-20 career that saw her become the only horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races, and the richest female racehorse with the earnings of $7,304,580. After capturing the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic on Royal Delta, Smith became the all-time leader for most Breeders’ Cup wins, with 17. Smith was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003. Smith is one of the jockeys featured in Animal Planet’s 2009 reality documentary, Jockeys. Mike Smith earned the 5,000th victory of his Hall of Fame career when he teamed with 2011 sprint champion Amazombie to capture the $150,000 Potrero Grande Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park on April 7, 2012. In 2000, he moved his home base from New York to Southern California. That year he won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award that honors a rider whose career and personal conduct exemplifies the very best example of participants in the sport of thoroughbred racing. In 2002, he served as the regular rider for his second Horse of the Year, Azeri. He rode Azeri to a win in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and also rode Vindication to a win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In 2005, he rode 50–1 longshot Giacomo to victory in the Kentucky Derby. The win, Smith’s first in the Derby, was something of a vindication for him. He was aboard Giacomo’s sire, Holy Bull, the 2–1 favorite in the 1994 Derby, but could finish only 12th after Holy Bull was bumped coming out of the starting gate. In 2008, he added two more Breeders’ Cup victories first in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Stardom Bound, and with the then 4-year-old Zenyatta in the Ladies’ Classic. A year later, Smith returned to the Breeders’ Cup with Zenyatta, this time to capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Smith partnered Zenyatta to 16 straight victories of a 19-for-20 career that saw her become the only horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races, and the richest female racehorse with the earnings of $7,304,580. After capturing the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic on Royal Delta, Smith became the all-time leader for most Breeders’ Cup wins, with 17. Smith was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003. Smith is one of the jockeys featured in Animal Planet’s 2009 reality documentary, Jockeys. Mike Smith earned the 5,000th victory of his Hall of Fame career when he teamed with 2011 sprint champion Amazombie to capture the $150,000 Potrero Grande Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park on April 7, 2012.
Gary Lynn Stevens (born March 6, 1963) is an American Thoroughbred horse racing jockey, actor, and sports analyst. Stevens was born in Caldwell, Idaho, the youngest of three sons born to Ron and Barbara Stevens. Ron was a race horse trainer who worked with both Thoroughbreds and American Quarter Horses. Stevens grew up around horses and first rode when he was three years old, assisted by his mother, who had been a rodeo queen. As a seven-year-old child, Stevens had to wear a brace for 19 months due to a degenerative disease of the hip, Perthes syndrome. He began helping his father as a horse groom at the age of eight. In high school, Stevens was a wrestler with potential to obtain college athletic scholarships. However, he dropped out of school in 1979 to pursue a career as a jockey. CAREER One of his older brothers, Scott, became a professional jockey, and at age 12, Stevens had decided to do the same. By the time he was 14, he was riding American Quarter Horses at small “bush” tracks. At age 16, he switched to Thoroughbreds, and at 17 won his first race at Les Bois Park, in Boise, Idaho, on Little Star, a horse trained by his father. After leaving high school, he spent four months in southern California working for horse trainer Chuck Taliaferro, who had helped develop other young jockeys, including Steve Cauthen and Cash Asmussen. He returned to Boise for about a year, then rode from 1981 to 1982 at Portland Meadows, where he won two awards for his race riding. He went on to Longacres, near Seattle, Washington, from 1982 through 1984, where he won 524 times, including a number of graded stakes races, broke numerous riding records, and was the leading rider two years in a row. Returning to Southern California in 1984, he began winning Grade I races and rode his first Kentucky Derby on Tank’s Prospect in 1985. Stevens’ first win in a Triple Crown race was the 1988 Kentucky Derby on the filly Winning Colors. He went on to win the Kentucky Derby again in 1995 and 1997, the Preakness Stakes in 1997, 2001 and 2013, and Belmont Stakes in 1995, 1998 and 2001. He fell short of winning the Triple Crown in 1997 when he won the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm, but came in second in the Belmont. The following year, he picked up his second Belmont win on Victory Gallop, in turn denying a Triple Crown to Real Quiet. In 1993, he became the youngest jockey in history to surpass the $100 million earnings mark and was the fourth youngest jockey to be inducted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame when he was given that honor in 1997. He won the Santa Anita Derby nine times, and won ten Breeders’ Cup races, making him the seventh-leading money winner in Breeders’ Cup history as of 2014. The dangers of Smith’s profession became evident in 1998, when he suffered major injuries in two separate spills. A broken shoulder in March took him out of action for two months. Then, in August, while leading the Saratoga meeting, he broke two vertebrae in his back, requiring him to wear a body cast for several months. He came back six months after the fall. He retired briefly from racing for ten months in 1999- 2000 due to knee problems, but returned after a rest and credited what was his first comeback to the use of nutraceutical supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin. In 2002, Stevens wrote a book about his life up to that point titled The Perfect Ride. Hall of Fame sportscaster Jack Whitaker described it as: “a great read, not only for horse racing fans, but for anyone interested in how the American dream really works.” In November 2005, Stevens announced a second retirement. His decision was again linked to knee problems, but he reached it a week after Rock Hard Ten, who he rode to a second-place in the 2004 Preakness Stakes, was retired due to a foot injury. Describing the horse at the time as the best horse he had ever ridden, Stevens said, “He’s retiring, I’m retiring.” Stevens rode his last races of that year on November 26 at Churchill Downs.
During his retirement, in addition to sports casting and television work, Stevens worked as a jockey agent in 2007, representing Corey Nakatani. In 2009, Stevens also became a horse trainer with the assistance of his son, T.C. Stevens, based at Santa Anita. At the time of his 2005 temporary retirement, his mounts had collected over $221 million with 4,888 winners in North America, ranking Stevens fifth in all-time winnings at the time. He had over 5,000 wins in 2005 when including overseas victories, including 49 wins in the UK, 55 races in France, and 20 victories in Hong Kong. Stevens considers his 5,000th win to have been in the Gaviola Stakes on October 30, 2005. On January 3, 2013, Stevens announced he was coming out of retirement to ride horses as a jockey again. He won the Preakness Stakes on Oxbow and added additional wins to his lifetime total, including an international victory in the Shergar Cup at Ascot Racecourse that raised his total win record in the United Kingdom to 50. Stevens continued to ride regularly the rest of the year, and on November 1–2 at Santa Anita Park, Stevens won his third Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Beholder as well as his first Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Mucho Macho Man. His Classic win was the first in 15 total attempts, and he was the only jockey to have ridden in both the first Breeders’ Cup in 1984 and in the 30th in 2013. He finished the year 12th in the nation by earnings with 69 wins from 383 races and his lifetime wins total stood at 4,957. His wins for 2013 included 18 graded stakes victories. 2013 marked Stevens’ third most successful year since 2000, comparing favorably to his 23 graded stakes wins from 487 starts and 94 wins in 2005 and 532 starts with 99 wins with 22 graded stakes wins in 2001.
In 2014, he had 145 starts and 31 wins, finishing in the top three 54% of the time in the first half of the year, but his knee problems became too severe to continue riding and by July, he announced a “break” in order to have knee replacement surgery. He stated a hope he could return to riding because he was otherwise in good athletic condition. He stated, “In my mind, I’m not finished.” Coincidentally, in the same week, Mucho Macho Man was retired from racing, marking the second time a Steven’s break coincided with the retirement of a horse he had ridden to racing success. Following surgery in late July 2014, he returned to riding in morning workouts in mid-October 2014 and accepted mounts for the 2014 Breeders’ Cup in the Juvenile Fillies Turf and Breeders’ Cup Sprint. By 2014, his earnings stood at $236,951,490 and his North American wins were at 4,988. As of 2015, he had 139 international wins in six nations in addition to his North American records. He reached his official 5,000th North American win at Santa Anita Park on February 13, 2015 on a horse named Catch a Flight, trained by Richard Mandella.