The Partnership of Horse Racing

Picture 4I was so excited to see that Gary Stevens was the jockey who won the Preakness yesterday.   Now here’s a guy who’d already had an amazing career.  He was inducted into the Jockey Hall of Fame back in 1997.  Plagued with injuries and surgeries, he’d retired from racing twice, first in 1999 and then again in November 2005.  In retirement, he went on to become a racing analyst for television, played the role of jockey George Woolf in the Academy Award nominated movie Seabiscuit, and recently starred in a television series about the world of racing.

Then, just this past January, he announced that he was headed back to the saddle, after seven years of retirement.  He’d been keeping his hand in the arena by opening his own training stable a few years ago, but made the decision to return to the saddle just weeks before his 50th birthday.  Yup.  On March 16th, Gary Stevens turned 50 years old.  And this weekend, he reached yet another milestone by clinching the win on a long shot named Oxbow.

While watching a replay of the event last evening, my daughter asked  if the key to winning was hinged more on the horse or more on the rider. That’s the thing about horses, I told her.  It’s a complete team effort.  You’re in it together, sink or swim.  Race horses only know how to do one thing.  RUN and run hard. Of course, the horse has to have the speed and the stamina.  And the willingness to run for the hands holding the reins.  And that’s where the tricky part comes in.

Breeding has become a science, but no matter how closely it becomes scrutinized, it still boils down to a partnership between horse and rider.  Jockeys require not only the physical stamina to stay aboard a speeding bullet, but also the clarity of mind to control the impulsion of their 1200 pound mount.  Skilled jockeys know when to hold, to push, to thread the needle, and finally to shift that thunder-ball of energy into that ultimate top gear, like turbo drive.

Jockeys have to make split decisions on where to run the track; inside  right along the rail where the odds of getting squeezed or bumped are greater, or go to the outside where it’s a longer distance around, or thread the needle to carve their own path right through the competition.  When negotiating the trajectory at break-neck speed, timing is everything.  A jockey can screw up and cost the horse the race, simply by getting squeezed out by those running in front.  Or, by holding for too long, so that by the time the horse gets the cue to crank up to that overdrive  gear, there isn’t enough track left to nose out across the finish line.  Sometimes its just a matter of stride…had the jockey urged overdrive just a stride or two earlier, they’d have had the win.

Stevens rode Oxbow in the Kentucky Derby just 3 weeks earlier, crossing the line in a forgettable 4th place finish.  In the world of horse racing, that’s not memorable. However, it was pivotal in the understanding Stevens gained of his partner.  After the first turn at the Derby, Oxbow wanted to grab control and take on speed, but Stevens held him back, with his own plan in mind.  After the race was over, it was clear to Stevens that his mount was not in a horsin’ around mood.  “He was a horse that was pissed off, after the race. I think he was upset with me that he didn’t get the running style he wanted. He’s a very free running horse. I took his best weapon away from him. I know that now.”

Saturday’s Preakness win was a wire to wire win, which is no easy feat.    Stevens and Oxbow grabbed the lead right out of the gate, from the No. 6 post, and hung on to it right through the finish line.  The last time that happened at the Preakness was 31 years ago.

Gary Stevens had nothing to prove, he’d already done it all.  By returning to the world racing stage after seven years away and just months before the run for the Triple Crown, he’s proven the old adage that ‘there’s nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse’.  He’s been a world class athlete for years, but to me, he’s a world class horseman through and through.

Way to go, Gary! Pretty darned awesome.