My friend Gary Stevens went back to riding on Sunday after seven years, and I can tell you that seven years is a long time. My daughter, Lorelei, was two months old, almost to the day when he retired. Now she is up to my chin. I know I am small, but still it’s funny how we stay the same and they morph into little humans.
I was away for three-and-a-half years when I rode my first California race in my comeback in 2002. Lucky for me, I got to ride a lovely filly for Richard Mandella down the hill at Santa Anita. I don't ever recall riding the hill before that, and let me tell you it’s very different and takes different talents. There’s a strange right-hand turn and no brakes, with a speed bump when you cross the dirt. On top of that, it’s all done faster than normal races!
Anyway, I was really surprised by the trembling I felt in the paddock that day. I mean, not the kind of tremble where you lose your muscles or you’re afraid. It was kind of like all my muscles and brain cells were coming together to prepare me for something that I hadn’t been doing for a very long time. I wouldn’t say I was nervous. In fact, I was really happy and excited and I was committed to my choice. My desire to ride was so huge I could no longer contain it.
Gary knows what I’m talking about. It’s the whole thing: feeling fit and strong, making money, and being understood, mostly by the horse. It’s the gratifying feeling of being on a horse who is slinging itself around and fighting the bridle, then sliding your hands down the reins, talking to them by pulling them back at just the right time. Then only strides later giving the reins back to them only to feel their body relax and their stride become powerful and long. That is the moment when the Thoroughbred is as efficient as they can be. Their mind is relaxed, their footfall is huge, and their breathing is perfectly in rhythm. Sometimes even the horse’s ear base relaxes and they put their ears straight up. That’s when people can see what a jockey feels. It’s like the planets align.
And heck, we’re only at the half-mile pole. Imagine sitting behind two speed horses, sitting in the catbird seat watching this unfold. Gary will be there again, maybe even on his first day back. You climb up the reins, the horse’s ears tighten and his back legs quicken, then the horse seems to get wider under you and you’re at the three-eighths pole and your horse slips forward on his own to resist another horse trying to pass.
Now the horse and rider have joined in. You lower your body and push with that rhythm, and as much as you push the horse matches every stride under you until everything is a blur. The two have become one in knowing the destination is that one little spot - the nose on the wire - some spot that we choose out of nowhere, floating in the air in front of the grandstand. But the horse can feel it out there somewhere, and at times he will stretch out to lift at the last second as if he is reading your mind.
Gary gets to do all that again. I used to know just how he feels.
KRONE AND STEVENS BEFORE THEY RETIRED