BY JIM WELLS
The text messages poured in from tracks around the nation, from riders, trainers and friends, congratulating him on an award given to a single jockey in the country, once in a lifetime, each year.
The winner is determined by a nation-wide vote of riders and, as such, is a bow from men and women, the competition, whose honor and respect are not always easy to obtain.
The award is named for Hall of Fame rider George Woolf, who died after a spill on the clubhouse turn at Santa Anita in early January, 1946. Among his many achievements in racing, Woolf is also recalled for having ridden Seabiscuit in a match race victory over War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner and reigning horse of the year. Woolf was popular enough at the time of his death that Western movie and singing star Gene Autry sang at his funeral.
The award is additional confirmation of the respect Stevens attracts whenever and wherever he puts on a set of silks. That includes Canterbury Park, where he still holds a number of records and is a three-time riding champion.
“It’s a long time coming and very much deserved,” said Canterbury HOF rider Dean Butler.
“Yeah, it’s about time,” added Canterbury’s defending riding champ, Ry Eikleberry.
Stevens is the second member of his family and the fourth Hall of Fame rider at Canterbury Park to receive the award. His brother Gary was the George Woolf Award winner in 1996; he and Scott are the only brothers to do so.
The other Canterbury HOF riders who won the award include Sandy Hawley in 1976, ten years before he won the riding title in Shakopee; Mike Smith, the leading rider at Canterbury in 1985, in 2000. Dean Kutz was awarded the George Woolf award the very next year.
Stevens has won more than 4,800 races during a 43-year career, in which he has had more than 32,400 mounts.
He won riding titles in Shakopee three straight years, starting in 1990, and still holds the record for all-time starts with 6,570. He holds the record and is also second on the all time list for starts in a season, with 833 in 1990 and 784 in 1991. He is second all time in total wins in Shakopee with 999, 62 fewer than Derek Bell. He has the second-most wins in a season, riding 151 in 1990, seven fewer than Kutz in 1987. Stevens is also third on the all time earnings list with $11,131,281.
Stevens, 58, rides during the winter months at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, where he has won nine titles overall and finished third in the meet that ended the first week of May. He has won six titles at Les Bois track in Idaho. He has ridden primarily at small tracks but has left a large and lasting memory at all of them.
“That’s something,” said trainer Robertino Diodoro, for whom Stevens has ridden extensively in the past at the Phoenix track. “Usually an award like that (the Woolf) goes to someone from a big race track, not the smaller ones.”
Yet, it is not only his skill in the saddle for which Stevens won the award, but also his demeanor in jockeys lounges wherever he races. He is always cool and calm in stressful situations, and always willing to assist new riders learning the craft.
“A class act. He’s a class act,” Butler said.
Most of Stevens family will attend the ceremony, which takes place in the winner’s circle at Santa Anita, and the cocktail party that follows at the Derby Restaurant in Arcadia, once owned by Woolf himself.
Stevens is looking forward to that part of the induction. “There are a lot of interesting items at the restaurant, things like Phar Lap’s saddle,” he said. “And Woolf had an apartment upstairs.”
He is also pleased to be one half of the only brother combination honored with the award. “I guess my parents did something right,” he said. “They are our biggest fans.”
And they provided the background that eventually turned to racing. “They had horses and we worked hard in the barns as kids,” Stevens said, “and we liked it.”
Gary Stevens has altered his plans for the day so he won’t miss the ceremony at Santa Anita.
“He’s actually not going to work the Preakness Stakes on radio or TV,” Scott said. “He stayed in California because he was afraid he wouldn’t make it back in time for the ceremony.”