Before he ever picked up the phone, Gary Stevens probably could have predicted the answer he would get. The retired Hall of Fame jockey wanted to talk with his brother Scott, who had been winning races for four decades, about whether he should get back in the saddle after seven years away.
In 2010, Gary had urged Scott not to ride again after a terrible spill at Canterbury Park nearly took his life. Scott’s unquenchable love for horse racing lured him back to the track, and he advised Gary — who ended his career in 2005 because of chronic knee pain — to let his desire guide him.
“I always wanted to emulate whatever he did,’’ Gary said. “He told me, ‘If you’re feeling it, if you want to do this, don’t take that away from yourself.’ ’’
That led Gary to follow his brother into racing again, just as he did more than 35 years ago. Saturday, Gary will ride Oxbow in the Belmont Stakes, three weeks after winning the Preakness in the biggest victory of his five-month-old comeback. Scott will ride four races at Canterbury Park, where he is the second-winningest jockey in the history of the Shakopee track.
The Stevens brothers — Scott, 52, and Gary, 50 — carved very different career paths after butting heads for two years at Les Bois Park in their native Idaho. Gary left for the glamorous Southern California circuit and has won three Kentucky Derbies, nine Triple Crown races and eight Breeders’ Cup events, compiling nearly $224 million in purse earnings. Scott opted for a lower tier of racing that allowed him the family time he craved, winning more than 4,300 races and $33 million in purses at tracks such as Canterbury and Arizona’s Turf Paradise.
Though both are grandfathers now, neither their enthusiasm nor their skill has waned. Three weeks ago, after completing an afternoon of racing at Canterbury, Scott watched on TV in the jockeys’ lounge as his brother won his third Preakness — a victory that Gary said was the most emotional of his career.
“The best advice I could give him was to follow his heart,’’ said Scott, who has ridden 924 winners at Canterbury and holds the track record with 6,014 starts on thoroughbreds and quarter horses. “I thought he was nuts at first, because he gave up some good jobs. But he’s always been a very determined person, and I knew when he set his mind to it, it was going to be good. I’m very proud of him.’’
Following his brother’s lead again, Gary sent the compliment right back.
“Scott has been my hero,’’ said Gary, who played a jockey in the HBO TV series “Luck’’ and was an NBC racing analyst during his retirement. “He’s had a huge impact on this comeback and on my career.’’
That influence goes all the way back to Caldwell, Idaho, where the Stevens boys slept in the same room but harbored different dreams. Scott hung out at the barn with their dad, Ron, a horse trainer, and concealed his true age so he could start riding a year before he hit the minimum age of 16. Gary played quarterback for school teams and envisioned a future in football until he stopped growing at 15.
Scott’s success at Les Bois Park led Gary to the track, and he finished second to his big brother in the jockey standings in the two years they both rode there. After moving to Southern California, Gary became a superstar, winning the Derby in 1988, 1995 and 1997. Scott won numerous riding titles at smaller tracks while spending lots of time with his two children.
Scott Stevens never has considered retirement despite multiple injuries — including the 2010 accident at Canterbury, in which he was airlifted from the track in critical condition with collapsed lungs, fractured ribs and a ruptured spleen.
When Gary’s knees forced him off the track, he resumed an acting career that began with the movie “Seabiscuit’’ in 2003. “Luck’’ gave him a vicarious connection to his old life, but when it was canceled last year, he began pondering a comeback.
His many discussions with Scott convinced Gary to give it a shot. He gave up alcohol and changed his diet, and an intensive workout program helped him drop about 20 pounds. Scott, who now rides fewer horses to limit the stress on his body, advised Gary to be more selective with his mounts and talked him through some winless spells.
“I think he missed it a lot, but it’s a rough business,’’ Scott said. “When he calls and he’s down, I tell him, ‘The reason you came back is because it’s still fun, and we get paid for it.’ I’m proud of how he’s come back, especially the fact that he’s changed his lifestyle a lot.’’
Gary Stevens said he feels better now than he did in the last five or six years before his retirement. Neither brother is placing any expiration date on his career, following the example of their dad—who with an assist from Craig, the oldest brother, still is training horses at age 74.
Scott and Gary follow each other’s careers closely, talking several times a week and watching each other’s races via TV or computer. Saturday, shortly after Scott finishes his races at Canterbury, he will be encouraging his little brother again in his return to the big stage of Belmont Park.
“Scott is the one who said, ‘Just do it,’ ’’ Gary said. “I didn’t know how [his comeback] was going to turn out, but it’s been overwhelming. Every race I ride is a gift.’’