BY JIM WELLS
What does a Hall of Fame breeder do when he wants the best available to ride his horse?
He calls a Hall of Fame rider.
Jeff Hilger picked up his phone a couple of weeks ago and contacted Scott Stevens, hoping the veteran rider was available for Sunday’s Festival of Champions.
Hilger, his wife, Deb, and Rockin the Bleu’s are retiring from racing, and he wanted someone to ride her one last time, someone he trusted on a mare of her sort, someone with whom he had a long association, a relationship spanning four decades, to the late 1980s.
“I need some help, someone to ride Rockin the Blue’s for me in her final race. Can you come up and ride her for me?” Hilger asked.
“I’d be happy to,” Stevens said.
That simple exchange covered a lot of ground and included the unspoken history of a long relationship, about trust and understanding.
“Scott was our first jockey,” Hilger said. “He rode a lot of races for us in Phoenix, too.” There was more than mere sentiment associated with Hilger’s request, however. He wanted someone familiar with his horse, someone who understood the horse’s pedigree.
“Nothing against other riders,” Hilger said, “but Scott is the only rider I know who really understands the Blue Turquoise bloodline. You don’t tell these horses to do anything. You get on them, ride, and let them make the decisions. You let her do her thing and Scott knows that.”
Now six, Rockin the Bleu’s is entered in the Bella Notte Distaff Sprint, a race she won two years ago and finished as runnerup in 2016.
Hilger said nostalgia was indeed a factor in his decision to use Stevens. “I came into racing with him and I wanted to go out with him,” he said.
Yet the practicality of the business applied its weight as well.
“I think he has a shot on her,” he said. “If anybody is going to win with her, he can,” Hilger said.
Hilger and his wife, Deb, own Bleu Valley Farm in Grant Township and were inducted into the Canterbury Hall of Fame in 2011. As champion breeders in Minnesota, winning a final stakes race written for Minnesota-bred fillies and mares would be a perfect closing note.
And Stevens would be an ideal rider to share the distinction with them. The leading rider at Canterbury Downs three times, in 1990, 1991 and 1992, he is the winner of 991 races and more than $9.5 million in Shakopee.
There is a chance he might finish the meet at Canterbury this summer, as he did last year, although he has not made that decision. He has three mounts on Sunday’s Festival card will and return home to Phoenix on Monday.
Stevens will ride The Great Casby for trainer Dave Van Winkle in an allowance race and Shooters Alley in the Minnesota Classic for trainer Nevada Liftin.
Stevens rides regularly during the autumn and winter months at Turf Paradise and then picks and chooses his spots during the summer months. He finished out the last few cards of the meet in Shakopee last year, but has restricted himself to primarily stakes races in California, Colorado, Iowa and Canada this summer, running his own book.
Having long since established himself as a sought-after rider, just how good has he been as an agent, representing only himself?
“Darn good,” he said. “Very good.”
Although he has not ridden regularly at Canterbury for the last few years, Stevens’ mark on local racing is very much part of the track’s record books. He is the leading rider in all time starts and twice for most starts in a season. He is second all time in most wins in a season with 151, third in all time earnings and second in all time wins. A stakes win on Sunday would fit quite nicely into what he has done this summer. “I think he’s won eight of the last 10 stakes he has ridden,” Hilger said.
Which is all part of the carefully thought out plan, as Stevens put it, of a good agent, then excusing himself during a conversation to seek out information in answer to a question. “A good agent should have this stuff available,” he said.
The Hilgers have not abandoned horses altogether. They have converted their thoroughbred farm into a riding stable, with access to numerous trails in the area and now have someone to help out in the barn.
Yet, at the conclusion of their racing career, there is nothing that that would wrap it up any better than one last trip to the winner’s circle on Sunday. Hilger said he will know how good their chances are in the paddock before the race when he greets Stevens.
“Scott always tells me how he feels by saying ‘we’re going to get our picture taken today,’ ” Hilger said.
Under any circumstances, Rockin the Bleu’s will get another opportunity in the racing business. Win or not on Sunday, Hilger plans to send her to Kentucky with the hope of producing one more Minnesota bred.