He had passed up the invitations before, even when his brother Gary was riding in the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line. Scott Stevens had his own races to run, so he stayed at Canterbury Park, hustling into the jockeys’ lounge between rides to watch on TV as Gary lost one bid for the Crown and spoiled another.
Stevens was offered a pair of tickets to this Saturday’s Belmont, when California Chrome will pursue the first Triple Crown in 36 years. Earlier this week, he was weighing whether to use them or to watch from the jocks’ room again — this time at Belmont Park, where he will ride in the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Stevens will be aboard the Canterbury-based gelding Broadway Empire in the $1.25 million “Met Mile,’’ competing in the biggest race of his career before watching an old friend chase history.
Nearly 30 years ago, Stevens became pals with Alan Sherman — assistant trainer of California Chrome — when both were riding at Southern California tracks. He also knows 77-year-old Art Sherman, Alan’s dad and the principal trainer of the star colt.
Stevens has been working Broadway Empire at Canterbury, where the horse’s trainer, Robertino Diodoro, has saddled eight winners this season. In his first trip to New York, he and Gary will ride on the same card for the first time in 16 years, adding one more highlight to a dream of a day.
“The whole thing is going to be pretty neat,’’ said Stevens, 53, whose 958 career victories at Canterbury are second-most in track history. “Gary fell short of the Triple Crown with Silver Charm [in 1997] and was the spoiler when he beat Real Quiet [with Victory Gallop in 1998]. He’s always offered for me to come and watch, but I’ve never been to a Triple Crown race.
“I really appreciate the opportunity [Broadway Empire’s connections] gave me. And I think the horse is going to run good.’’
The Met Mile attracted a stellar field of 13 for its 121st edition. It’s a big step up for Broadway Empire, who scored a pair of Grade 3 victories last year in the Oklahoma Derby and the Canadian Derby.
A late bloomer, he was idled by an infected cut at age 2 and hadn’t even been to a racetrack when he came to Diodoro’s barn 16 months ago. “When he came off the trailer, he looked like a saddle horse, big and dumpy-looking,’’ Diodoro said. “But once we got going with him, it didn’t take too long to figure out he could run.’’
Broadway Empire won his debut by 16 ½ lengths in a swift time at Phoenix’s Turf Paradise. Before Diodoro returned to the grandstand, his phone began ringing with offers to buy the horse. Bids grew as high as $675,000, Diodoro said, for a horse that cost his four owners less than $30,000. The group chose not to sell, deciding the fun they could have with Broadway Empire would be worth more than that.
A foot problem hampered the horse in his final starts last year, including a ninth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. He returned healthy and hearty this spring to Turf Paradise, where Stevens piloted him to victory in an April allowance race.
That was the first time Stevens had been on the horse, and Diodoro noticed how the high-strung gelding relaxed in Stevens’ hands. But when the owners decided to run Broadway Empire in the Churchill Downs Handicap on Kentucky Derby day, they chose Gary Stevens to ride him. “I was really disappointed,’’ Scott said. “And Gary felt really bad about it.’’
Broadway Empire finished a strong fourth despite a terrible trip. He joined Diodoro’s 58-horse stable at Canterbury, where he continued training beautifully under Scott Stevens. While Scott expected his brother to stay aboard for the Met Mile, he was told in late May that his work with the horse had earned him the mount.
Diodoro and Stevens both said they expect a big race from Broadway Empire, and Gary has been briefing Scott on the quirks of riding at Belmont. The horse could run at Canterbury later this summer in the Mystic Lake Mile, but a stout performance Saturday could move him — and Stevens — into more elite company.
“People have asked me, ‘Are you nervous?’ ’’ Stevens said. “I’m not nervous about the race at all. I’m very excited. It’s going to be a fun day.’’