ARCADIA Old? Age makes no difference with fresh legs.
At 50 but riding like a jockey half his age, Gary Stevens capped his tremendous comeback season with an authoritative victory aboard Beholder in Friday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita.
"I can't say I expected to be on this stage," Stevens said. "But I'm blessed to get the opportunity."
After seven years in retirement, Stevens hoisted his ninth Breeders' Cup trophy but first since 2000.
Beholder's triumph spoiled two-time defending champion Royal Delta's attempted three-peat. Sweaty before the race, Royal Delta, with Mike Smith aboard, pressed a hot pace behind Authenticity before fading to fourth.
"I realized Royal Delta was empty and couldn't travel with me," Stevens said. "We may have been third choice, but I really felt like it was my race to lose."
Said Smith, "She didn't have it; no spark, man. I asked and asked, but nothing. I'm kind of dumbfounded."
A 3-year-old filly, Beholder became the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies champion to win the Distaff. She also moved into a crowded Horse of the Year picture. If Game On Dude and Wise Dan falter in their Cup races today, the title could be hers.
Royal Delta's poor performance proved the only sour note on a sweet day for Smith. The 48-year-old veteran won two Breeders' Cup stakes on the first day of the two-day, $27 million world thoroughbred championships.
"I'm very proud of Mike and what he did earlier today even if he did cut me off in one of those races," Stevens said. "We root for each other, but we're also fierce competitors. We're just two old athletes still plying our trade pretty good."
Going into the far turn of the 1 1/8-mile Distaff, Stevens boldly moved on Beholder, inhaling Authenticity and Royal Delta in a few long strides. Beholder never looked back, winning by 4 1/2 lengths in 1 minute, 47.77 seconds.
Close Hatches, Royal Delta's stablemate, was second, with Authenticity third. Princess of Sylmar, who bested Beholder in the Kentucky Oaks, was last in the six-horse field.
Owned by B. Wayne Hughes, Beholder ($7.60) gave California trainer Richard Mandella his eighth Breeders' Cup victory, all at Santa Anita.
"I've been lucky enough to have many good mares in my years of training, but this mare might be the best of all," Mandella said.
Batting .500, Hughes has won with four of his eight Cup starters.
"I love sports," Hughes said. "For Gary Stevens to come back like he has at his age is phenomenal. He's one of the greatest athletes on the planet."
It's not the rocking chair derby, but Hall of Fame riders Smith and Stevens make Breeders' Cup XXX look like an old-timers' game. Friday was just the warmup.
Today in the $5 million Classic, Smith rides favorite Game On Dude. Stevens will be aboard second choice Mucho Macho Man.
Stevens likely will never catch his best friend in one category; Smith rode a record 19 Breeders' Cup winners. That includes back-to-back long shots Friday with London Bridge in the Marathon and Outstrip in the Juvenile Turf.
"(Owner) Sheikh Mohammed told me to get the best jockey for the horse," said Charlie Appleby, Outstrip's trainer. "In my opinion, there's no better man than Mike Smith."
Stevens, who came out of retirement in January, rode in the first Breeders' Cup in 1984 at Hollywood Park.
"I had one mount," he recalled, "and was a troubled last."
Before Friday, Stevens' last Breeders' Cup ride came in 2005. After work as a television commentator and actor, Stevens still longed to race. He quietly planned his comeback while covering last year's Breeders' Cup as a member of the media.
"The toughest part was convincing people I'm still capable of doing (the job)," Stevens said. "Thank goodness for owners and trainers and great horses. I'm 50, but the horses I ride are age 2, 3, 4 years old. I'm relying on the athleticism of these race horses."
Trainer John Gosden said young riders should watch Stevens.
"He has a fabulous feel for the horse," Gosden said. "Gary has the most beautiful hands, like (Bill) Shoemaker, (Eddie) Delahoussaye or (Chris) McCarron. A lot of young riders can learn from him."
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.