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Kentucky Confidential

Thundering Home

“Oh, won’t someone give me
A ticket to the land of the free
I’m alone in Hong Kong
Why did I roam?
It’s post time and I’m still
light years away from
My old Kentucky home.”
          – Inside the mind of an unhappy ex-patriot, 1995

They should have been the best of times. Twice each week, a world away from Churchill Downs on a grass track called Sha Tin, Gary Stevens would get up on whatever a trainer named Sik Lung “Stephen” Leun schlepped out of the stables and …

Wham! Bam! Instant Pegasus.

After his first month of booting them home in 1995, he had the highest winning percentage of all the jocks in Hong Kong, and it wasn’t even close. “The quality of this jockey,” the trainer said in delighted candor, “far outweighs the quality of our horses.”

The world should have been golden for Gary Stevens. David Edwards, the influential racing writer for the Hong Kong Standard, nicknamed him the “Colony’s newest poster boy.”

May, however, was fast approaching and Sha Tin was light years away from Churchill Downs.

Try ordering Derby pie in Hong Kong and you get wonton soup. Stevens was alone in Hong Kong and an ocean away; all the jocks he knew were thinking about their Derby horses.

On the day he took a maiden with seven places and no wins to the post at Sha Tin and got her home first, he was no longer merely a jockey to the Chinese railbirds. In Hong Kong’s drug-free equine society, he had become a kind of King Midas in official stable silks, riding the best of them and the worst of them, without the benefit of Lasix or Bute, and turning the blinking lights next to their numbers on the tote board into pure gold — no matter how high or low those numbers were.

The money was great, the adulation was heady, and the peace of mind that goes with winning while riding medication-free older horses and racing only on grass surfaces (“My first month there,” he will tell you, “I never saw a horse fall and that includes 8, 9 and 10-year olds”) was a brand new luxury.

Ghosts of Kentucky Derbies Past, however, gnawed away at his psyche with all the subtlety of a cracked molar begging for root canal therapy. As each day brought him closer to the first Saturday in May, he could not shake the heady aroma of Kentucky roses and the memory of the crescendo of noise just a year earlier as he sat astride a colt named Brocco and the memory of how it grew into a Niagara Falls kind of thunder when the track announcer trumpeted:

“Ladies and gentleman, the horses for the eighth race, the 120th running of the Kentucky Derby, are now on the track.”

In all, there were nine such memories and in concert they formed an Anvil Chorus of reminders that would not be silenced. The biggest hammer of all belonged to the remembered images of 1988. D. Wayne Lukas was the trainer. Eugene V. Klein was the owner. And they put him up on a roan filly named Winning Colors and let him ride off into history.

Before that afternoon, only two fillies had ever won the Kentucky Derby. He remembered how Winning Colors “broke cleaner than a Twin Spires sunrise” with a colt named Forty Niner positioned to catch her all the way.

He remembered the way she moved from the 11 post toward the rail to get the lead right at the start. He remembered coming out of that final turn with the huge infield crowd pressing as close as it could get to the fence on his left and the growing roar from the grandstand on his right as they made the run down the stretch.

He remembered hitting her left-handed, keeping her honest and knowing — as the sight of the finish line seemed to swallow everything else in view — that Forty Niner wasn’t going to catch her with roller skates on this day. And, of course, he remembered the roses. Each memory, in its way, only brought the loneliness of Hong Kong into sharper focus.

So he would go out to Sha Tin and gallop horses in the morning and wait for the race days to roll around on Saturday and Sunday and watch his long-distance telephone bill spiral until it had reached $300 a day.

He recalled of that time:

“I had been thinking about the Derby every day for the last month and a half. I couldn’t have gotten by without riding in it. It’s become a part of my life.”

He was determined to find a way back to Churchill Downs, but Gary Stevens didn’t just want to ride in the Kentucky Derby — he wanted to win.

In March, Steven’s agent, Ron Anderson, got him a mount aboard a horse named Urgent Request in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. In the minutes before post time, the horse’s owner, retired casino magnate Stewart Aitken bet $90,000 to win and $30,000 to show. Urgent Request’s odds dropped faster than the Dow on Black Friday and Stevens got the horse home first.

Then Anderson got him a ride in the Santa Anita Derby on an underdog colt named Larry the Legend, and Stevens wins that, too, and, suddenly, finally, has his Derby mount. He flew back to Hong Kong with visions of Churchill Downs dancing in his head.

“Two or three days after the race, he’s hurt, he can’t run and is not going to make the Derby,” Anderson recalled of Larry the Legend.

Anderson, by the way, was in Hong Kong too, and when Larry the Legend went down Lukas rang him up.

“I want you to ride Thunder Gulch in the Derby,” Lukas said, meaning for Anderson get Stevens for him. “I hang up the phone and it’s just Gary and I. We’re by ourselves. I say we’re going to ride Thunder Gulch in the Derby, and he says, “‘I’m not going to ride that horse, he’s a 50 claimer.’ Right away, I knew I wasn’t to get him out of this. I’m thinking, ‘Mother, how am I going to do this.'”

Thunder Gulch had won the Remsen at 2 and the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby at 3. In his final Derby prep, he had run a clunker, fourth to a non-entity named Wild Syn in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Lukas may have put him on the back of Winning Colors, but, to Stevens, Thunder Gulch was no Winning Colors, and he wanted a live mount.

“I was leaving in a few days to go back to L.A. to do my taxes and visit my mother,” Anderson recalled. “I saw Mike Smith and said, ‘I need you.’ He said, ‘How’s that?’ I said, ‘Meet me after the races at Peppers.’ I said, ‘Gary won’t ride Thunder Gulch in the Derby.'”

In telling this tale, Anderson reminds that there were no cell phones at the time, only a handful of international phone cards to reach use to reach Stevens in Hong Kong. He got to the restaurant, met Mike Smith, and they huddled up and called Stevens from there.

“He talked to Gary for five minutes and Gary agreed,” Anderson recalled. “Thunder Gulch won the Derby; he won the Belmont; he won Travers. He went up and won the Swaps in California in between. That was the only time in 10 years Gary Stevens refused to ride a horse with me.”

The Hong Kong sojourn was supposed to last four and a half months. Ready or not, Thunder Gulch helped bring Gary Stevens back home.

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Author PhotoWorking from Churchill Downs undercover, Blinkers Off is a legendary, award-winning sports writer spinning tall tales from Derbies past. More by  ›