This morning I had the pleasure of speaking with Hall of Fame jockey and three-time Kentucky Derby winner Gary Stevens. Gary is currently currently a racing analyst for HRTV and NBC Sports, and is featured on HRTV's daily Kentucky Derby preview show, "Pursuit of the Crown, presented by TwinSpires.com".
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Gary Stevens rode in the Kentucky Derby on numerous occasions over his Hall of Fame career, winning the Derby in 1998 with Winning Colors (only the 3rd filly to ever win), 1995 with Thunder Gulch, and 1997 with Silver Charm. Additionally, Gary won the Belmont Stakes three times, the Preakness twice, the Santa Anita Derby a record nine times, along with eight Breeders' Cup races. He also won the 1998 Dubai World Cup while riding Point Given. He was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.
Gary talked with me this morning about Saturday's Kentucky Derby, which horses he feels are going to perform well and which ones he thinks are struggling, as well as thoughts on the Derby from his personal experiences during his Hall of Fame career.
A sincere "thank you" to Gary Stevens for taking the time to speak with me this morning.
The transcript from the interview is below.
MATT: The big story of the prep season has been Uncle Mo and his troubles; what are your thoughts on Uncle Mo and how things have gone leading up to the Derby?
GARY STEVENS: They haven't gone well. The Timely Writer was basically a non-race, it was just a paid workout for him. He came back and flopped in the Wood and it was really a sub-par performance. I think we were all expecting big things from him; I was one that thought if he improved from his two-year-old season he had a shot to sweep the Triple Crown. And then he had the intestinal infection after the Wood - I wouldn't have liked to have had that happen in February, let alone right on top of the Derby. I haven't really liked the way he's looked [in Louisville]; I'm not saying he can't win the Derby, but he's really up against it.
MATT: Midnight Interlude is a colt that didn't race as a juvenile and only broke his maiden in late March - what do you think of his chances on Saturday?
GARY STEVENS: He's actually one of my picks in the race and I thought his Santa Anita Derby was a very, very good race - overcoming the trouble in mid-stretch and to re-rally and come back and finish strong as he did. His gallop out was very strong and he's come back and worked excellent, and he looks great over Churchill's main track with an unbelievable workout two days ago. Baffert's done it before. Everybody keeps throwing the non-racing as a two-year-old around, I think that doesn't matter. I think if he takes another step forward, like he did with the huge step up in the Santa Anita Derby, then he's going to be getting his picture taken.
MATT: Which of other the current contenders has impressed you the most this spring, and why?
GARY STEVENS: Dialed In is my pick to win the race. Zito looks like a genius right now leaving that horse down in South Florida - he and Kiaran McLaughlin with Soldat. Everybody [in Louisville] has been training around the weather - the weather has been dictating their training schedules of everybody for the last two weeks. Dialed In got his final work in at Palm Meadows, they put him on a plane on Sunday, and he was on the track on Monday and he was full of himself. I thought his Florida Derby was better than it looked - Shackelford was a huge long shot but he was no slouch - Dialed In closed into slow fractions and the track was favoring speed. He was the only horse all day long on Florida Derby day that closed any ground at all in the last quarter of a mile, and he closed substantial ground. With what I figure is going to be a very hot pace up front, I think it sets up for a deep closer like him, or possibly Nehro, who was second in the Arkansas Derby.
MATT: Pre-Derby workouts receive a lot of scrutiny this final week - what do you like to see from a horse in their morning works that lets you know that they are ready to run big in the Derby?
GARY STEVENS: I'm looking for the horses that handle the surface the best. Right now a horse who I won't say wasn't on my radar screen, but he wasn't a high priority, is Archarcharch. Archarcharch has had a tremendous two weeks out here; he looks terrific, he's getting over the ground at Churchill, and it really looks like he's blossoming right now.
Another horse that's flying way under the radar and that's caught my eye with the way he's getting over the ground is Pants On Fire with Rosie Napravnik. That's a great story in itself, the success that she's had this winter at the Fair Grounds - the leading jockey there by a long ways - and she's only 21-years-old and getting her chance at her first Kentucky Derby. I wouldn't rule her out.
MATT: What affect do you think the possible wet conditions will have on the Derby?
GARY STEVENS: I don't think it's really going to affect any of the horses as much as the jockeys. With the slop flying back, your vision becomes impaired and it makes it more difficult to come from behind. Outside of that, this track really handles water well, and even if it rains Saturday morning, this track dries out quickly. If we get some sunny skies and a nice breeze...it can be sloppy in the first race and by six o'clock on Saturday afternoon it could be fast track. I really don't want to speculate as to how the track condition is going to be and let it interfere with how I handicap the race. At the end of the day, with Uncle Mo's subpar performance and training just "okay", it's opened this Derby up to maybe one of the most competitive Derby's I've seen in my lifetime. I could make a case for 12 or 13 horses in this 20-horse field that, with the right trip, could get the job done.
MATT: With such a huge field in the Derby year after year, do you think it's more important to get your horse into the best position early on, even if you have to perhaps ask the horse for a bit more early on, or do you think it's more important to let the horse settle in as quickly as they can out of the gate?
GARY STEVENS: I think any time you take a horse out of his particular style and try to force him to do something they are not used to doing you're cutting your chances in half. The most important thing is to get your horse in a nice rhythm, get them comfortable - wherever that may be - let the horse dictate to you where they need and want to be. Obviously, if you have a horse that likes to lay close to the pace it's essential you get a good clean break.
What I see happening [in the Derby] is that there are about 12 horses that all have the same running style, that are all wanting to lay three lengths off the lead, three-wide on the outside. Unfortunately, there's only one horse that can be in that spot. I think it's going to be a roughly run race early on going into the first turn, and if I had my pick of horses [to ride], I'd want to be on one like Dialed In where you can just sit back and not be too concerned what's going on up front; just worry about your own horse and conserve as much as you can for the last quarter of a mile.
MATT: Along those same lines: how much pre-planning can you do before a race with a 20-horse field? Can you plan out how you're going to ride the race before hand or do you have to rely more on your instincts as soon as the gate opens?
GARY STEVENS: You plan for about 20 different scenarios and you run that race through your head over and over and over again, but at the end of the day, when the gate opens, you ride by instinct. It's pretty much "prepare for anything". One thing I know about the Derby is to expect the unexpected, and prepare for anything and everything.
MATT: Winning the Derby in wire-to-wire fashion is difficult to do, something you accomplished on the filly Winning Colors in 1988; describe the feeling when you are out on the lead of the Kentucky Derby right after leaving the gate, you have a 10 furlongs head of you and you have to lead every step of the way?
GARY STEVENS: I've been on the lead, and just off the lead, and you know very early on what your chances are [to win]. With Winning Colors, I had a big smile on my face at the half-mile pole because they allowed us to commit grand theft. She was very comfortable and I was able to get to the 3/8ths pole with no pressure at all. At the 3/8ths pole, I pressed the "Go" button and she responded.
I've been up there close before - like with Point Given, in what were some of the fastest fractions ever set in the Kentucky Derby. I knew going into the backside that I had no chance. He was pulling, he wasn't relaxed, he wasn't breathing in the same rhythm that he normally did, and I couldn't get him to relax. I knew that he would have to be even more of a super-horse than he was to pull it off that day. As a jockey riding a race, you know pretty early on whether you're going to be a factor in the last 1/8th of a mile or whether you're not going to be a factor.
MATT: Of your Kentucky Derby rides, was there a particular horse that surprised you in terms of how they ran in the race, as opposed to how you thought they were going to run?
GARY STEVENS: Thunder Gulch...he was a pleasant surprise. I knew he wasn't without a chance; I had ridden him as a two-year-old and Mike Smith was riding him [prior to the Derby]. I had watched all of his races because I was riding in Hong Kong. When we came into the stretch, I was ready for a battle of a lifetime and I knew he probably wasn't going to respond to my coaxing without getting pressured by another horse. To my surprise, when I pulled my stick into my left hand and hit him left handed the first time as we entered the stretch, he just exploded under me and opened up - and actually that was my easiest Derby win of the three. He turned into a man that day and it was a pleasant surprise.
MATT: Can you describe the emotions you felt with your first Kentucky Derby mount, Tank's Prospect, in 1985?
GARY STEVENS: It was exciting. Every Derby I rode in was exciting. I was going down the escalator to go to the paddock and Bill Shoemaker was walking with me and said, "kid, when you walk out on that race track you're going to get a tear in your eye when they start singing My Old Kentucky Home. Don't worry about it, I get it every year." It's as true a fact as I've ever been told.
I thought of Bill Shoemaker every time I walked out on that race track, and what he said to me, and I had a tear in my eye every time I went out there and they played My Old Kentucky Home. When it's over with, it's back to business and, for me, it becomes just another horse race.
MATT: You've experienced the Kentucky Derby on numerous occasions, what makes the Derby so special?
GARY STEVENS: You can go anywhere in the world and people that are non-horse racing fans know what the Kentucky Derby is. It's a race deep in history and it's also a race that's eluded so many greats in the game. There are a lot of Hall of Fame trainers that have never won the Kentucky Derby, and there are a lot of Hall of Fame jockeys that have never won the Kentucky Derby. It's the most viewed race in North America and it's viewed throughout the world. Twenty horses...150,000 screaming fans...horses going a mile and a quarter for the first time in their life - and a lot will never be asked to run a mile and a quarter again. It's a daunting test for a young three-year-old.
MATT: A question about this Friday's Kentucky Oaks? The defection of R Heat Lightning has opened up the race a bit - any fillies that stand out to you heading into the Oaks?
GARY STEVENS: Well, I'm not a gambler unless the occasion is right, and I'm sort of disappointed that R Heat Lightning is not running because I thought I was going to get a decent price on Joyful Victory - she was going to be my pick.
If Eight Belles had not had that accident in the Derby for Larry Jones, I really think this filly would be facing the colts right now in the Kentucky Derby. I think she's something exceptional.
Another filly in the race that I think [Joyful Victory] has to beat is Daisy Devine, a filly that won the Fair Grounds Oaks.
MATT: And finally - and you've already touched on this - you're on Dialed In for the win on Saturday?
GARY STEVENS: Yeah, I'm on Dialed In - and Midnight Interlude - those are my two choices.