DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — During the seven years he was retired, one of the things that kept nagging at U.S. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens was the fact he won the Dubai World Cup only once.
A three-time Kentucky Derby winner, Stevens said the prospect of riding one more time in the world's richest horse race helped to convince him to launch a comeback at 50. He won here with Silver Charm in 1998 and came in second behind Cigar in the inaugural race in 1996 on Soul of the Matter.
Stevens will mount Dullahan in the Dubai World Cup and Little Mike in the Dubai Duty Free on Saturday.
"I would love to win another Dubai World Cup," Stevens said. "I didn't want to be 70 years old sitting at home with my children and saying, 'Man, I wish I would have done this when I was 50.'"
Having overcome long-running knee problems, Stevens said he was "thriving now" since returning to the track in January and feeling better than before he retired.
The results speak for themselves, as he has $1 million in purse earnings, mostly at Santa Anita, and finished in the top three 54 percent of the time, according to Equibase, a thoroughbred racing database.
"To go out there and ride a race and not to have pain, I am thinking mentally much more clearly than I did for the last five years I was riding competitively," he said. "When I go into the stalls for a race, my mind is very clear and focused on what I need to do."
Stevens said his biggest worry was common to many older athletes that make a comeback: Would he tarnish his legacy and prove the critics right?
"I didn't want to be the shadow of what Gary Stevens once was," he said. "I knew I had to be what he was if not better."
Stevens, a father of five whose 53-year-old brother also rides, said he had to convince his wife and his mother that the return was worth the risk — considering dangerous falls are a hazard of the business.
His mother still refuses to watch his races on television — his father watches and gives her live commentary. But he convinced them it was something he needed to do for at least another five years.
"I knew it would be difficult on her and difficult on my wife as well," he said. "My wife was relieved when I retired, but she also knows I won't say how miserable I've been but that something was lacking in my life."
During his time away, Stevens worked as a TV commentator which allowed him to study scores of races and the tactics of jockeys. It is helping him now, since most of the young jockeys "don't know my tendencies so I have a bit of an edge."
Dullahan's trainer, Dale Romans, said he never thought twice when Stevens became available for the Dubai World Cup.
"If you look at his credentials, he is one of the greatest of all time, so you know he won't crack under the pressure of the big race," he said. "If something unforeseen comes in the race, he will be able to handle it. I don't think we could have gotten a better rider for this day."
Another U.S. Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith, who is riding American contender Royal Delta in the Dubai World Cup, welcomed Stevens back to the fold.
"That is what is great about riding with great, great riders. They bring your game to another level," he said. "Gary does that to me. I like when I get the opportunity to ride with him. He doesn't make mistakes so I can follow him and trust him or stay in front of him."
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