Not many jockeys own a picture of themselves adorned with roses aboard a Kentucky Derby winner. Gary Stevens owns three.

Stevens shoots for his fourth Kentucky Derby win this Saturday aboard longshot Firing Line. And who could blame him if he made this winner’s-circle photo poster sized?

Now 51 years old, the Idaho-born Stevens returns to the Kentucky Derby after sitting out last year’s event. A victory this year will make him the second oldest jockey to win the race and move him into a tie for the 2nd most Derby wins ever for a jockey.

The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby poses quite a challenge, though. Firing Line races for the small stable of Simon Callaghan. After notching his biggest career win in racing’s minor leagues in the Sunland Derby, Firing Line now steps onto racing’s brightest stage. He’ll face top horses from the most successful racing stables in the world.

Trainer Bob Baffert, who also claims three Derby victories, saddles Arkansas Derby winner American Pharoah, a horse Baffert considers to be the best he ever trained. Baffert also sends undefeated Dortmund to post on Saturday. Meanwhile, leading US trainer Todd Pletcher sends out Carpe Diem, a $1.6 million yearling and winner of 4 of 5 lifetime starts.

This year’s race also features the most talented foreign shipper ever to enter, Mubtaahij. He hails from the powerful European stable of trainer Michael de Kock. Mubtaahij is the only Derby entrant with victories against older horses and in Derby-length races. And Mr. de Kock’s horses have captured major stakes wins on nearly every continent where thoroughbreds race.

Firing Line and Stevens must topple giants to reach the winner’s circle. And there’s another problem. Stevens hasn’t won this race in nearly two decades.

The situation was different back then, when racing’s elite trainers sought Stevens’ services. He guided the filly Winning Colors home first for legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas. He scored again for Lukas in 1995 aboard Thunder Gulch. When Gary hit Derby pay dirt a third time in 1997, he rode for leading West Coast trainer Bob Baffert.

These days he rides mostly for trainers with smaller stables. But Stevens has proven adept at seizing great victories from small opportunities. He has traveled further than any other jockey in history in terms of miles and purse money.

Gary started his career at the age of 14 at bush tracks in Utah and Idaho. Prize money for those races wouldn’t cover the cost of a clubhouse seat at the Kentucky Derby. So Stevens took the long way there. His journey to the Derby winner’s circle wound its way around the industry’s periphery, with stops in Boise, Portland and Seattle.

When he and Winning Colors grabbed the winner’s share of the $780,000 Kentucky Derby purse in 1988, Stevens had completed his journey from the Northwest to the Southeast. And from racing’s bottom economic rung to its top.

Now, just a year after a full knee replacement, Stevens gets another shot at racing’s most coveted prize. Perhaps his final shot. And he’ll take aim aboard a horse with the asset he prefers most: speed.

Firing Line, who prevailed in the Sunland Derby after battling for the early lead, resembles Gary’s earlier Derby-winning mounts. Winning Colors led from start to finish in 1988. Silver Charm glued himself to the neck of the Derby frontrunner in 1997. And Thunder Gulch shadowed the early leaders in 1995.

Racing near the front is Gary’s trademark. He remains one of the most skilled jockeys at grabbing good tactical position early while saving a speedy, victory-sealing burst for the stretch run. He and Firing Line are well matched. And they nailed the dress rehearsal at Sunland, with Firing Line drawing off to win by 14 lengths in excellent time.

Nobody watching this year’s Kentucky Derby will be surprised to see Gary Stevens guiding Firing Line to the front of the 20-horse pack. And nobody familiar with his history should be surprised if he emerges victorious once again.

Roger LeBlanc
April 29, 2015