Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode three Kentucky Derby champions and just missed winning the Triple Crown with Silver Charm in 1997, is retiring.
Stevens, 36, said Sunday after going winless in four races at Santa Anita that degenerative arthritis in his right knee is forcing him to end his career, which included a total of six victories in Triple Crown races.
"One hundred yards into the first race I rode, I knew this would be my last day," he said. "Today I was hoping for a Christmas miracle. I was hoping to be able to do my job.
"But it wasn't fun anymore. It was time."
The searing pain in his knee told him so.
"There is bone on bone and it's chipping away. I want to be able to walk later in life," Stevens said.
He had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee earlier this month, but the procedure could not clear up the problem.
The jockey called it quits after finishing sixth aboard Desert Hero in the Malibu Stakes at the track in nearby Arcadia, asking to be taken off his last two scheduled mounts.
"At the eighth pole, I was praying for the finish line," he said of what was to be his final race.
Stevens' other Kentucky Derby wins came aboard the filly Winning Colors in 1988 and Thunder Gulch in 1995. He won the 1997 Preakness with Silver Charm, and the Belmont with Thunder Gulch, and with Victory Gallop in 1998.
After winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1997, Stevens and Silver Charm seemed on the way to becoming the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 when the colt neared the wire at the Belmont. But Touch Gold flashed past him on the outside and won by three-quarters of a length.
The following year, Stevens spoiled Real Quiet's bid to win the Triple Crown, guiding Victory Gallop to a nose victory in the Belmont.
A 5-foot-3, 115-pounder from Idaho, Stevens was the son of a trainer, and rode his first winner at age 16 on his first mount at Les Bois Park in Idaho.
Stevens went on to ride 4,512 winners in his 20-year career and his mounts earned a total of $187 million.
He won four Breeders' Cup races, but pointed to the Breeders' Cup Classic as the only major race that eluded him.
"Maybe I'll go after that in some other way," said Stevens, who had mentioned in the past that he might become a trainer.
He survived a number of scary injuries during his riding career, including in the late 1980s when a mount at Del Mar bolted into a temporary plastic rail. As the jockey went down, the rail speared him in the forehead just above his right eye.
In 1985, during a morning workout at Santa Anita, he had his right shoulder wrenched from the socket, severely damaging muscles, tendons and ligaments. He also tore ligaments in his right knee in the accident. However, he was back riding in two months.
In the 1990s, he had a string of knee injuries and several urgeries on his knees.
Stevens said Sunday that he had been considering retiring for several days, and that the decision was "the toughest I've ever had to make."
"I feel relieved. I'm at peace," he said.
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