2003: Gary Stevens-The Santa Anita Derby's Money Rider

Since its inception in 1935, the Santa Anita Derby has grown into one of the most important Kentucky Derby prep races around. Legends like Swaps, Affirmed, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay, Jr. and Bill Shoemaker all captured it during their careers, and all of them went on to victory in at least one Triple Crown event. In Affirmed's case, it was a complete sweep of the Triple Crown itself.

The Santa Anita Derby has long been a showcase for some of California racing's greatest figures, both human and equine. And for some of them who have won it, the status of legend has ultimately followed.

In the case of Stevens, he is of course a legend in Thoroughbred racing, and a legend of the Santa Anita Derby.

It all began in 1988. Stevens was in his mid-twenties, but had already captured a Santa Anita winter/spring title (he would win another that season). The icing on the cake may very well have been riding Winning Colors, the intriguing filly who made history by being the first horse to win the Santa Anita Oaks and Santa Anita Derby. It was rare for a filly to win the latter, and she defied history later that spring with Stevens when they won the Kentucky Derby. It is possible that the 1988 renewal is the most famous of Stevens's victories in the Santa Anita Derby, but it was far from being the only one as time showed.

Anyone who followed the career of Stevens knows he showed up at the big races. You could count on him to win stakes nationally and locally. And over the years, he was a rider to watch when the Santa Anita Derby rolled around.

In fact, Stevens only had to wait two years to win it again, doing so with Mister Frisky. That put the Caldwell, Idaho native on course to dominate the race in the 1990s. He became the first jockey to take three consecutive runnings of the Santa Anita Derby when he piloted Personal Hope (1993), Brocco (1994), and Larry the Legend (1995). A back-to-back followed with Indian Charlie (1998) and General Challenge (1999) before Stevens began the 21st century with his record-tying eighth Santa Anita Derby with the highly talented Point Given in 2001. In the span of fourteen seasons, Stevens averaged a win in the Grade I every other year, a remarkable accomplishment.It also put him in rarified company, for only Bill Shoemaker had won the race as many times.

The 2002 renewal brought Stevens a second place with Easy Grades, but the multiple Eclipse Award winner was back in 2003, having the assignment on middle-priced entrant Buddy Gil, a gelding who won the Grade III Baldwin and Grade II San Felipe Stakes earlier in the meet. Among the competition the duo faced was Grade II San Vicente Stakes winner Kafwain and Atswhatimtalknbout, whom Buddy Gil defeated in the San Felipe by a nose.

Atswhatimtalknbout was made the favorite for the 2003 Santa Anita Derby, with many believing that the additional half-furlong would help his cause after narrowly missing in the 1 1/16 mile San Felipe. Kafwain was the second choice, while Buddy Gil was at odds of 6-1. Ocean Terrace and big longshot Indian Express dueled up front for more than half the race, producing quick fractions for the nine furlong distance. This played right into the favor of Buddy Gil, for the bay horse liked being close to the pace and was never very far behind the leaders. It worked out well for Atswhatimtalknbout, too. He routinely rallied from off the pace, and was getting the perfect set up for his late running style. Kafwain was the closest of the three, staying close behind the frontrunners.

Indian Express won the battle over Ocean Terrace, who had enough in the far turn. Buddy Gil and Stevens made a move to challenge, as did Domestic Dispute with Corey Nakatani in the saddle. From behind came Atswhatimtalknbout and David Flores, ready to rally. Kafwain and Patrick Valenzuela were in contention behind Indian Express.

Buddy Gil moved masterfully around the turn for home, putting himself and Stevens square in position to win on the outside of Domestic Dispute, who quickly backed out of any chance for the win. Indian Express was not finished, battling on with Buddy Gil. There was distance between them and Kafwain, who was not making an impact. Atswhatimtalknbout maintained his bid, but had work to do in a very short amount of time. Up front, the fans yelled their support for the horses, watching an exciting battle for the win between Buddy Gil and Indian Express. Neither equine was calling it a day, and a surprise win appeared in store based on the respective odds for each contestant. With a sixteenth to go, Atswhatimtalknbout was too far back, as was Kafwain. Not much separated the top two, and they dug in. But in the final strides, Buddy Gil had a scant nose advantage, one that he kept to the wire in a fantastic finish to the Santa Anita Derby.

For winning trainer Jeff Mullins, it was the first of three Santa Anita Derby wins in succession (another record for the race). For Stevens, the moment meant he was heading back to Churchill Downs for another possible Kentucky Derby win. In that regard, he had been in this position before. But on a larger scale, he had just ventured into uncharted territory: no jockey before him had experienced the achievement of capturing nine Santa Anita Derbies. It was a historic occasion at the nearly seventy year old track, and undeniably one of the most significant wins of what became a Hall of Fame career.

Interestingly, Buddy Gil was the longest shot Stevens ever rode in the Santa Anita Derby at 6-1. Several of the winners he rode previously went off at a short price, but not Buddy Gil. It added a unique touch of irony to the career of one of racing's greatest jockeys on what was one of his biggest days at the races.

There are always certain jockeys who rise to a different level when the occasion calls for it. This can happen during a classic event like the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes, or during one of the Breeders' Cup programs. You know them as "money riders," and they consistently find their way into the winners' circle during those times.

That is what sets those jockeys apart from others. They have the talent, and they have the mental prowess to transcend to that level of riding that puts them in the pantheon of the all-time greats in the sport.

Money riding is not limited to those days when the racing world is focused on the Triple Crown events or Breeders' Cup. It is seen at a local track anywhere around the world on any given day. It can also be seen in one particular race over time.

That is true for the Santa Anita Derby, but Gary Stevens stands alone as its top money rider.

Entry added March 15, 2020 by AF.