BALTIMORE – Although no one really keeps track of such things, Gary Stevens had no problem making the assessment with complete conviction.
“I guarantee I’m the first grandfather winner of a Triple Crown race,” said the 50-year-old Stevens, who guided Oxbow to a stunning upset victory Saturday in the Preakness.
Stevens retired in 2005 after a long struggle with knee pain. He resumed riding in early January, the same week he got a call from 77-year-old trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who told him about a couple of promising 3-year-old colts who could make the Derby.
One of them was Oxbow.
With Stevens confidently riding in the saddle, Oxbow led from start to finish and won the Preakness by 1 length to end Orb’s bid for the Triple Crown. The victory justified Stevens’ decision to return to racing.
“I’m not going to lie to you, to win a classic at 50 years old after seven years’ retirement, it doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. “This is super, super sweet. All the stars were aligned. I couldn’t be more pleased winning this thing. It’s even more special winning it for Wayne Lukas and his team.”
It was Stevens’ third career victory in the Preakness, the first since 1997 on Silver Charm.
Oxbow covered the 1-3/16th miles in 1 minute, 57.54 seconds. The ride, Stevens said, was easier than it looked.
“A lot of critics are going to think that I’m full of it saying this, but I won with a little something left, believe it or not,” Stevens said.
Stevens captured his first Triple Crown race in 1988 for Lukas, and they have remained close since then.
“Wayne put me on the map,” Stevens said. “When you win that first classic, your phone starts ringing, and people want you. I got the call about Oxbow this year dating all the way back to 1988.”
It was a phone call Lukas won’t ever regret. Although he changed jockeys on his other two entrants in the Preakness, Lukas remained convinced that Stevens was the right person to ride Oxbow. For days, they talked about the best way to run the race. But there’s really no way to predict what the other horses will do.
“I left it up to Gary,” Lukas said. “Let me say, I think I got a Hall of Fame ride. We can plan this thing, we can talk about it, we can talk about strategy. But once that gate is open, they have to make the decisions. Gary made some great ones.”
As he was gathering momentum and leaving the other eight horses in his wake, Stevens couldn’t help but think about the trainer that provided him with his first Triple Crown winner and got him back into the game at an age when most jockeys long have since quit.
“I was smiling pretty good on the back side. I actually thought about Wayne up in the grandstands,” Stevens said. “I knew he had to be looking at those fractions and was pleased with what he was seeing.”
Not long after that, Lukas, Stevens and their brown champion of a colt had a wonderful time in the winner’s circle.
“He wasn’t a tired horse. He was a happy horse,” Stevens said. “He enjoyed the celebration as much, well maybe not as much as Wayne and I, but he was enjoying it.”
Next up for Stevens, Lukas and Oxbow: a ride over 1½ miles in the Belmont on June 8.
“What about the Belmont? This horse has a happy kind of pace, and anybody that wants to come and tangle with him early on, bring it on. You’re going to get in trouble if you tangle with him. That’s all I can say.”
Oh, he had more. As he was wrapping up his press conference, Stevens said, “You’re only as good as the horses you ride and the people that you ride for. And I rode for what I consider to be one of the greatest trainers of all time.”
Then he looked up and saw Lukas in the corner of the room.
“I didn’t know you were standing there still,” Stevens said. “Oh, all right. I love you, Wayne.”