7:38 PM EDT, October 26, 2013
Most people think next weekend's horse racing extravaganza at Santa Anita is the Breeders' Cup. It's actually the Mike and Gary Show.
They are Mike Smith and Gary Stevens, the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady of their sport. They are long in experience and tooth, star jockeys who have been around ... and around ... and around.
Each has won more than 5,000 races and millions of dollars in racing purses. Each has won each Triple Crown race at least once, Stevens three times each. Stevens has won eight Breeders' Cup races, Smith has the record with 17.
Each has been inducted into racing's Hall of Fame, Stevens in 1997 and Smith in 2003.
But the most startling numbers? Stevens is 50, Smith 48. Santa Anita's daily reporter, Ed Golden, calls them the Geritol Jocks.
While youth must be served in all sports, and always eventually is, the Friday-Saturday Breeders' Cup competition has the look and feel this time of a Veterans Weekend. The Geritol Jocks have cornered the market on much of the top thoroughbred talent in the field.
Barring last-minute injuries to horses or riders, Smith will ride in 12 of the 14 Breeders' Cup races, Stevens in nine.
For Smith, it would have been 13 of 14, but his entry in the $1.5-million sprint, Points Offthebench, broke down Saturday morning during a workout and had to be euthanized. Smith was aboard but was not injured.
Of his Breeders' Cup rides, Smith says, "I'm not on one horse that I don't think belongs."
Stevens echoes, "Every horse I'm on has a real chance."
In this Breeders' Cup, the wagering public might not need all those complicated forms and sheets. There will be only one race without a Smith or Stevens aboard. With $25 million in purses at stake, bettors who go for experience in the irons might experience heavy wallets.
The biggest Smith-Stevens showdowns will come in each day's featured races.
In Friday's Distaff, worth $2 million, Smith will ride the favored Royal Delta, and among his main competition will be Beholder, with Stevens aboard. In Saturday's Classic, worth $5 million, Game On Dude and Smith are expected to get the biggest bump from bettors, with Mucho Macho Man and Stevens close behind.
Smith says, "I am blessed." Stevens echoes, "I've been very fortunate."
They've also been like brothers for nearly 30 years.
Smith says, "I'm happy for both of us, and if I don't win, I hope he does." Stevens, in a separate interview, says, "He's family, probably my best friend in life."
They met at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas in 1985.
"It was my first $500,000 race," Stevens says.
It was also Smith's wedding day and he invited his new friend to the wedding.
"I got there late, with Eddie D [Delahoussaye] and they were closing the bar," Stevens says. "We got it opened up again."
They each wake every morning between 115-118 pounds and go to work to get it even lower. Stevens has a protein shake and a scoop of peanut butter and heads for his workout. After his breakfast, Smith heads to the Matador Performance Center in Pasadena, is pushed by personal trainer Tony Vong, and often runs back to Santa Anita, about three miles away.
Sometimes, on non-race days, they'll have lunch together.
"He'll work me over sometimes, talk a little trash," Stevens says. "I hear how good Royal Delta is working, stuff like that."
Stevens was gone for awhile. He retired from racing in 2005, did network broadcasting, even starred in the movie "Seabiscuit" and the HBO series "Luck." He was happy, but unfulfilled.
"He didn't go out on his terms," Smith says. "We'd have dinner and I'd tell him to come back, that he could do it. There were a lot of doubters, but I knew he could do it."
And so Stevens did, putting himself through a boot camp in Seattle to get his weight down and getting back in the saddle near the start of Santa Anita's winter meeting in January.
Six months later, he took D. Wayne Lukas' Oxbow wire to wire in the Preakness and was all the way back.
Smith never left, but his career was chugging more than sprinting, until he got the ride on a giant mare named Zenyatta. She went 19-0, always coming from way behind to win before losing her last race by a couple of whiskers in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
Among her legacies is a statue near the paddock at Santa Anita and a very grateful former rider.
"She opened so many doors for me," Smith says. "I got the ride on Royal Delta, and Bob Baffert started to put me on some of his horses. There is still no way to describe those memories."
On behalf of his friend, Stevens can and does.
He recalls that magic day in 2009 at Santa Anita, when Zenyatta and Smith came roaring down the home stretch in the Breeders' Cup Classic. No female horse had won that race, then and now the second richest in the world behind the $10-million Dubai Cup. Nor was it conceivable that a mare could pass all the best males in the world at the end, even though Zenyatta had done it that way every time in races against her own gender.
But as the racing world will never forget, she did.
"I was with my son, standing in the mezzanine area near the finish line," Stevens says. "When she did it, the tears were pouring down my face. I was trying to look away so nobody would see.
"I told my son, 'Always remember this day.' "
Smith remembers never hearing a sound like that at a race track.
"I got over to the other side of the track after we finished and the ground was shaking, like an earthquake," he says. "Across the way, they were all standing. Her ears were up and she knew it was for her. She danced all the way back to the winners' circle and the ground never stopped shaking."
A year later, the Breeders' Cup was in Louisville, Ky., Zenyatta was taking on the boys again in the Classic and trying to finish her career 20-0. Stevens was half a continent away at Santa Anita, but there with Smith in spirit.
"We had a long day of filming 'Luck,' " he says, "and it was mostly me and Nick Nolte. When we got done, he came over to my house to watch."
At Churchill Downs, under early-evening lights in chilly weather, Zenyatta's last big come-from-behind dash was falling several inches short. A Kentucky horse, fittingly named Blame, won. A Kentucky crowd fell mostly silent.
In the Gary Stevens residence, Nolte watched from Stevens easy chair, feet up, beer in hand.
"When Zenyatta didn't win," Stevens says, "the room went silent. Nolte said, 'My God, I've never experienced anything like that in my life.' Then he got up, walked out the door and was gone."
In Louisville, Smith publicly took the blame. In Arcadia, Stevens defended him.
Their bond is a tight as Krazy Glue. They are kindred spirits and legendary competitors. They have excelled and persevered in a sport that doesn't allow much of that in senior citizenhood.
Stevens quotes his son, Riley, on jockeys: "Those guys are crazy. It is like riding a motorcycle with a brain."
Riley is a professional skateboarder. He recently suffered a lacerated spleen in a fall.
Smith and Stevens are crazy like foxes. Elderly foxes. There are spots of gray, but the teeth are still sharp.There are spots of gray, but the teeth are still sharp.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times