Stevens looks to play major role in Cup

He'll ride two favorites, putting acting on hold

Horse Racing

October 23, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. - This being California and this being the Breeders' Cup, it's appropriate that stars are prominent. And the most prominent star in this Hollywood racing firmament is a jockey.

Gary Stevens, a Hall of Fame jockey, played the role of George Woolf, a steely old-time rider, in the movie Seabiscuit. In that world, Stevens the actor proved a natural on the big screen with his booming confidence, keen intelligence and movie-star looks.

In the real world, Stevens the jockey thought he was going to die two months ago in a freakish spill at Arlington Park. On Saturday in the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, he will ride Perfect Drift, one of the favorites in the $4 million Classic, and Storming Home, one of the favorites in the $2 million Turf.

Storming Home is the horse Stevens rode in the Arlington Million - the horse that led a few strides from the wire but then swerved abruptly to the outside. Stevens crashed to the turf into the path of charging horses. One narrowly missed stepping on his head. Another's hoof clipped him in the chest.

Stevens suffered a punctured lung and broken vertebra. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, struggling for breath, he thought he was going to die.

Now, he wants vindication for Storming Home, whose reputation as a rogue is undeserved, the jockey said. Stevens said he believes the 5-year-old horse shied from a photographer in the infield.

"If he was a dog, I'd take him home and put him in my backyard," Stevens said. "He really doesn't have a mean hair on his body."

What's more, Stevens said, Storming Home is the reason he's riding in the Breeders' Cup.

"He is the most gifted turf horse that I've ever ridden," Stevens said. "So I came back sooner than I should have, knowing that I was going to have to come back soon to be 100 percent for the Breeders' Cup.

"I felt I was 95 percent last week. If I'm not 100 percent right now, if I'm 95 percent, he'll make up the other 5 percent."

Since coming to this country from England early this year, Storming Home, trained by Neil Drysdale, has finished first in all four of his races. However, he was disqualified to fourth in the Arlington Million.

As the top turf horse in the United States, he will face Europe's best - Falbrav, High Chaparral and Sulamani - in the 1 1/2 -mile Turf.

Because he came back to ride Storming Home, Stevens picked up the mount on Perfect Drift, the probable first or second choice in the Classic.

As Perfect Drift's trainer, Murray Johnson, and owner Dr. William Reed deliberated entering Perfect Drift in the Classic, the gelding's regular jockey, Pay Day, agreed to ride Ten Most Wanted. Murray and Reed snatched up Stevens.

"I love his chances," Stevens said of Perfect Drift. "I feel like I won the lottery picking him up. Now, all I have to do is go cash the ticket."

A 4-year-old gelding who finished third last year in the Kentucky Derby, Perfect Drift is 4-for-4 this year on dirt. He defeated Mineshaft by a head in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap in June at Churchill Downs.

If Perfect Drift wins the Classic, then that victory over Mineshaft would take on added significance in Horse of the Year balloting.

Perfect Drift is not well-known outside the Midwest, where he's run 15 of his 17 races. The two outside his home region were disasters - 10th in last year's Belmont, 51 1/4 lengths behind the winner Sarava, and last in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, 31 1/4 lengths behind the winner Volponi.

Johnson said he had excuses both times: Sore shins in the Belmont, trouble in the Classic; a horse stepped on him shortly after the start, ripping off a shoe. Johnson said he expects better from Perfect Drift this time.

"He's for real," Johnson said. "Hopefully, we can show everybody."

Whether they do or not, Stevens will board a plane shortly after the race and fly to London to promote Seabiscuit. He said he will also evaluate his riding career - he is 40 - and consider offers for additional acting roles.

"I don't use the word `movies,' " he said. "I don't want to jinx myself. I say `other projects.' "

He said he would like to divide his time between riding and acting. Acting, he said, is the only thing outside racing that has provided him the same adrenaline rush of nailing the perfect ride or winning a photo finish.

As Seabiscuit made him a celebrity outside the confines of the racetrack - People magazine named him one of the "50 Most Beautiful People" - the movie helped breathe life back into an ailing sport, he said.

"Within the first week of Seabiscuit opening up, I noticed a whole new fan base coming to ask me for autographs, and not just me, all of the jockeys," Stevens said. "And these were young kids. It has definitely opened up the doors and given us an exposure that money can't buy.

"And it's not about the gambling. It's about the beauty. And I know people are going to say, `Without the gambling, there is no racing.' Well, they learn to gamble later on. Without a younger generation, this sport is going to die."

Breeders' Cup

What: Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

Where: Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif.

When: Saturday

Feature race: $4 million Classic

TV: Chs. 11, 4, 1-6 p.m.

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