The events of that painful afternoon are still vivid in Scott Stevens’ mind: Aug. 1, the day before the 2008 Claiming Crown at Canterbury Park.
A Canterbury Hall of Fame rider, Stevens had several mounts in the big event and was looking forward to the next day. All of that changed in an instant. The horse he was on had just crossed the finish line and pulled a suspensory while galloping out. Stevens dismounted on the first turn and took hold of his mount while veterinarians set about putting a brace on the injured leg.
They hadn’t finished when the horse turned skittish and kicked, whacking Steven’s left knee with the loose brace. It was like getting hit with a baseball bat. “I thought my leg was broken,” Stevens recalled.
He would come to prefer a broken leg.
Stevens was initially diagnosed with a sprained MCL. Later examination revealed additional damage, a ruptured ACL and shredded miniscus. Doctors told him that years of riding had strengthened his legs to such an extent that muscle was the only thing holding his knee in place.
“I didn’t break a bone, but it felt like I did and I would have been better off if I had,” Stevens said this week.
Stevens underwent extensive surgery on Sept. 26 after returning home to Phoenix, Az. Surgeons inserted a donar ACL, attaching it at the top to the femur and at the bottom to the tibia, using screws designed to dissolve in six months. “Then, they trimmed up the miniscus best they could,” Stevens said.
Stevens, 48, has been riding since the mid 1970s and wasn’t new to injury on the racetrack.
In 2002, he broke 14 bones in a spill at Turf Paradise in Phoenix; included on the list were his pelvis, collar bone, heal and three ribs. Doctors said he’d be off eight months. He was back riding in 4 1/2 months.
The very next year, his tibia and fibia were broken in a gate accident in Phoenix, and Stevens was sidelined four months. The knee injury last summer at Canterbury kept him from riding for seven months, the longest period of inactivity and the most painful recovery of his career.
“During the first part of January I didn’t know if I would ever ride again,” Stevens said. “The knee got infected and I was having so may problems getting it stretched out.”
It took determination and a willingness to endure the worst therapy he can recall.
“The therapy took six hours a week and was brutal,” he said. “I really wondered if I would ever get back.”
Yet in late February, he started galloping horses, and for the next month wore a brace to protect the repaired knee.
He rode his first horse on March 26 at Turf Paradise. Still, he wondered if he would regain his stamina, his ability to make race-riding worthwhile. He got his first winner with his second mount and wound up riding 92 horses with 16 winners for the remainder of the meet. “I did pretty well,” Stevens said.
Stevens rode seven horses on the last day of the meet, the last race at a mile and 7/8ths. He arrived in Shakopee eager to ride again and looking forward to the meet now under way.
“I think the layoff helped,” he said. “I have a good attitude. I want to do this and I’m still having fun.”
Yet, the layoff hurt business. He lost many of the owners and some of the stables for whom he rode regularly, but understands that’s part of the process. “I couldn’t ride (in Phoenix). Juan (Rivera) picked up some of the mounts I used to have and has done a good job, so it’s up to me to build some new relationships now,” he said. “But it’s tough at times.”
Stevens first rode at Canterbury in 1989 and was the leading rider three straight years, from 1990-1992. He just missed making it four in a row, losing the title in 1989 to Chris Valovich by a single win. He has won just about every stakes Shakopee offers at one time or another.
Now he is back, ready for another meet.
“I’m glad to be here,” he said. “The knee feels strong. I feel great. Now I just need to ride some winners.”
The bet here is that he will.