Derby jockey inspires with age-barrier defiance

Published On May 9, 2013 | By Paula Maloney

The strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” played by the University of Louisville marching band signaled the start of the Kentucky Derby last Saturday. The Derby, regarded as “the fastest two minutes in sports”, is the first leg of the Triple Crown, and the stakes are high.

This year, 50-year-old Gary Stevens competed in that high-stakes race as a jockey for Oxbow, a horse who was trained by 77-year-old D. Wayne Luka. During the race, Stevens displayed pure athleticism and the streamlined body of a jockey half his age. He finished the Derby in fifth place, but what was more noteworthy was the fact that he raced alongside jockeys in a sport where the average age is 27.9 years young.

Stevens is a legend among jockeys, having won the Kentucky Derby three times in his career. Stevens wrote a book, “The Perfect Ride”, in 2002 when he was on the comeback trail following his first retirement from racing in 1999. Stevens retired again in 2005 thanks to a string of injuries that left Stevens with no choice but to literally pull in the reins on his jockeying career.

During his time away from the track, Stevens found a home in Hollywood as he was tapped to ride Seabiscuit, one of the most famous four-legged contenders in horse-racing history, in the movie adaptation of Seabiscuit’s rise to fame. Seabiscuit was responsible for the lifting the somber moods of millions of Americans during the Great Depression and gave Americans a feeling of hope.

Stevens unwittingly did the same in his recent outing on a mud-soaked track in Louisville.

Athletes in other arenas of sports have also inspired others by overcoming what is expected of people their age and succeeding in sports. Dara Torres comes to mind, as she made a bid at the age of 45 to qualify for her sixth Olympics team. Four years earlier, at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, she defied the odds and won an impressive three silver medals. The famed Olympic swimmer possesses a chiseled physique that only the hands of a sculptor could recreate, and her reemergence created a frenzy in the world of swimming.

The common denominator between Stevens and Torres is simply that age does not have to be an obstacle. Both athletes have overcome a bundle of injuries ranging from osteoarthritis to knee and shoulder problems. These athletes not only speak for the adage “try and try again” but execute it as well.

Is there something encoded in their individual DNA that allows them to compete at such a high level despite their age?

In order be a top-tiered athlete, constant hard work is a given. You must be tough physically and mentally, but you don’t necessarily need to be in the prime of your youth.

These two middle-aged enigmas are showcasing raw strength and endurance, and Stevens continues to do so as he will return to the mount and ride Oxbow in the upcoming Preakness on May 18th in his quest for a win.

The definition of the term jockey utilized as a verb means “to outwit” or, as informal word, “to operate or guide.” Gary Stevens just guided the middle-aged spectator and bystander into realizing that age is just a number.

As the wall of noise readies on race day in Baltimore, I look forward to watching another race led by a 50-year-old jockey named Stevens.

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About The Author

I grew up outside of Boston with three brothers and immersed in sports early on. I studied at Boston University School of Education and spent summers as a lifeguard in Nantucket where I fell in love with the island and currently reside there. I work in real estate and as a broadcaster for Channel 99 covering the local sports scene on the island. I am an avid athlete but my passion is surfing. I have run three Boston Marathons and one New York Marathon which was truly a runner's high.I am the proud mother of Bizzy, in her second year of law school and Molly, a junior in college majoring in communications.