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Stevens Sees Epsom as the One That Maybe Got Away

On Racing

Gary Stevens (right) and Lester Piggott walk the course at Epsom Downs in 1999

Gary Stevens (right) and Lester Piggott walk the course at Epsom Downs in 1999

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post

It has been a good year so far for tidying up great racing records, with Javier Castellano, age 45, finally winning the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Johnny Velazquez, 51, nailing his first Preakness Stakes (G1). There's nothing worse than a hole in a well-stocked trophy case. Thankfully, they will never be burdened by the regrets of Sam Snead, who couldn't win the U.S. Open, or Ernie Banks, who never played in a World Series.

Such unfinished business makes for inspiration while an athlete is still in the game. In retirement, however, there is only bittersweet reflection upon what might have been. Ask Chris McCarron today how long it took him to get over Alysheba losing the 1987 Belmont Stakes (G1), and with it the Triple Crown, he will answer, "I'll let you know when I do."

Gary Stevens won just about every race he wanted to win during a Hall of Fame career that spanned parts of five decades. Sure, he wouldn't mind going around one more time in the 1997 Belmont Stakes with Silver Charm, just to find out if a Triple Crown was part of his destiny. But the gray horse never really let him down, so that mountain had to remain unclimbed.

If there is a legitimate regret Stevens will cite—of all things—the 1999 Epsom Derby (G1), sponsored that year by Vodafone and run on Saturday, June 5. This year's running is Saturday, June 3, with an early afternoon post time of 1:30 p.m. locally to accommodate the broadcast of some kind of soccer thing on the same TV network later in the day. At least it wasn't cricket.

In early June of '99, Stevens was fresh off the airplane and ready to ride first call that season for Sir Michael Stoute. The kid from Idaho was a stranger in a relatively strange land, called on to ride the trickiest course this side of the Khyber Pass on a colt with a legitimate chance. His name was Beat All, who ended up finishing third to Oath at the end of the 12 furlongs.

"I possibly could have won had I ridden the course before," Stevens said this week.

Stevens at least was able to walk the course before the Derby, in the company of racing commentator John McCririck and nine-time Derby winner Lester Piggott.

"You have to break the course down," Stevens said. "Here's where you want to be at point A, point B, and so forth. I was trying to run the race in my mind. But no matter what, the most important thing is that you've got to have a horse who can handle it. It's a hard race on them. Michael said that if they can't handle the course it will really tear them up.

"It had been drilled into my head how steep the climb was into the first right-hand turn," Stevens went on. "And going to the post, it did look like it was straight uphill. It was impressed on me how important it was to save ground for the switch back to the left for the downhill. If I had it to do over again, I would have asked him for a bit more early on in the climb. He would have been closer, and would not have had as much to do in the final 3 1/2 furlongs."

Stevens and Beat All could be found near the back of the field as the 16 runners made their way through the middle of the race. They gradually improved their position into the sharp left of Tattenham Corner, then settled into the final half-mile grind that travels not only uphill but cambers dramatically to the left. Stevens and his colt ended up about three lengths back of victorious Oath, while edging Willy Ryan and Housemaster by a very short head to take third.

EPSOM DERBY 1999      JUNE 99<br>
Photo: Edward Whitaker/Racing Post
Gary Stevens aboard Beat All (orange cap, outside) running on to finish third in the 1999 Epsom Derby

"To run third in a classic like that was certainly no slap in the face," Stevens said.

Only a handful of American riders have done better, although in the modern game, there has been very little exchange of 3-year-olds between the American and British classics. It follows that jockeys rarely are found away from home on those important days. It has taken a full, expatriate commitment from Americans like Steve Cauthen and Cash Asmussen to make a serious mark on the European classics.

There was a time, however, when anti-gambling sentiments began to percolate at the dawn of the 20th century, and a flood of United States jockeys made haste to Great Britain and France to preserve their hard-won careers. Several of them even managed to win the Epsom Derby.

America did not, however, send its best and brightest. The brothers Lester and John Reiff, a couple of Missouri boys, won the Epsom classics of 1901, 1907, and 1912 while battling suspicions and suspensions as horse dopers and race fixers. John Henry "Skeets" Martin, from Pennsylvania, left the U.S. under a cloud of association with the gambler Pittsburgh Phil. His British sojourn was peppered with rough riding bans, but he did win the 1902 Epsom Derby aboard Ard Patrick.

Connecticut's Danny Maher was of considerably better repute, with a bright record enhanced by winning three versions of the Epsom Derby in a four-year span, 1903-1906. He later became a British citizen and was among the first jockeys inducted into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame.

Matt McGee of Covington, Ky., rode Durbar to victory at Epsom in 1914. He was the last American to win the Derby until the arrival in Britain of Steve Cauthen, also of Covington, Ky., who won the race in 1985 with Slip Anchor and in 1987 with Reference Point. Like Maher, Cauthen stuck around to make a lasting mark.

In between came Bill Shoemaker's near miracle of 1978, when the American champion put Robert Sangster's Hawaiian Sound on the engine from the start to lead the field over hill and dale nearly every step of the mile and one-half. It took Greville Starkey's daring dive to the inside rails in the final yards aboard Shirley Heights to win by a head and steal the glory from Shoemaker.

Though it's been nearly a quarter of a century, the Epsom Derby experience remains vivid for Stevens.

"For an American to come over and ride on a contract for someone like Michael Stoute, there was a lot of pressure on me to perform," Stevens said. "Let's just say I didn't want to make too many mistakes. Even so, that's one race I'd really like a do-over."