Early March in Phoenix was more like late April some years. A number of desert plants were already close to blooming, but nowhere was life any more vibrant on this particular morning than the stable area at Turf Paradise.
A visitor was getting a tour of the barn area from jockey Scott Stevens when the conversation turned to the hottest television show of the moment, HBO’s Luck, in which Gary Stevens, Scott’s brother, had a prominent role.
“My mom wouldn’t watch it. She didn’t like Gary’s character,” Scott said. “People kept telling me what a great actor he was, but, hey, I told them that he was just playing himself.”
The topic created a chuckle in the jockey lounge on Sunday, one day before the two-year anniversary of a much less humorous subject – the worst accident of Scott’s racing career. He was airlifted from the track at Canterbury Park with his chest crushed, two collapsed lungs and a broken collarbone.
Two years earlier a horse kicked him in the knee, tearing his ACL. Surgery followed, sidelining him for nine months, the longest layoff of his career.
Last summer, on June 16, a morning incident in the gate left him with two broken collarbones and a very painful and extended recovery. “It’s getting pretty bad when you become personal friends with you physical therapist,” he said.
Yet, it was the pilates and other stretching routines that have Stevens not only feeling better but looking it as well, factors probably not unrelated to the quality of horses he’s been riding during the current meet in Shakopee. “He’s the only guy I know who looks as if he’s going backwards (in the aging process),” said Andrew Offerman, Canterbury Park’s social media guru and a resident handicapper.
Time and time again, trainers have commented on how well he is riding, more like he’s 31 years of age instead of 51.
“People say that, but they forget that I’m riding better horses,” he responded.
Better horses, riding better… whatever the case, Stevens is in third place with 14 wins in the Canterbury Park thoroughbred rider standings.
This follows a productive meet at Turf Paradise, where he won 43 races while competing in one of the largest jockey colonies in track history.
“He’s an iron man, someone you can look up to,” said Tanner Riggs, 23, who leads the rider standings in Shakopee. “He’s one of the toughest guys I know. But he’s someone you can talk to, too. He’ll help you any way he can.”
More than anything, though, it’s Stevens appreciation for horses and love of racing. “He’s always positive,” Riggs added. “Even after all the injuries, he comes back and is positive about everything.”
There is also a remarkable career that includes six riding titles at Les Bois Park in Boise, Idaho, six more at Turf Paradise, one each at Yavapais Downs and the Sacramento and Stockton Fair meets and, of course, three at Canterbury.
He has more than 4,000 thoroughbred wins and another 157 on quarter horses.
His endurance, attention to detail, riding ethics and personality have made him the dean of the jockeys’ room.
“He’s very respected. People like him. They respect his opinion,” said jockey room custodian Jerry Simmons. “A lot of that is because he is so respectful of everyone else.”
Like many of us, Stevens has taken to heart many of the lessons and bits of wisdom acquired over the years.
“I’ve learned that you can’t drink too much water,” he said. “The more you drink, the better you are. I used to drink pop or something instead. You have to weigh in every race. You gain a pound if you drink a glass of water, but you lose one riding, too.”
Stevens is hydrated now, as he never was before. His wounds have healed to the point he doesn’t require medication. “I don’t even take an aspirin in the morning,” he said.
There is more with the passing of time that is good, too.
“I have three grandkids now,” he said. Gabriella is six, Audrey is two and Joelle is three months.”
His daughter, Jessica, and son, Jake, both live in Phoenix, where he lives, too, along with Pam, his significant other.
So, all is healthy and well in Stevens’ world again. His children are thriving, he has grandbabies, a good relationship, a still prospering career… and he’s still riding winners.
This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.
Photo Credit: Coady Photography