Watch out for the old guys. They know how to make young horses run their best.
Kentucky Derby dreams can be made – or broken – for several 3-year-olds Saturday at Golden Gate Fields. But if the favorites falter in the El Camino Real Derby, it won’t be because of a lack of experience on their backs.
Gary Stevens and Russell Baze, two Hall of Fame jockeys in their 50s, ride Enterprising and Tamarando, respectively, stakes-winning colts who top a field of eight.
Baze is a fixture at Golden Gate Fields, but Saturday’s race will be Stevens’ first at the track since 1998, when he won the San Francisco Mile aboard Hawksley Hill. Stevens, who will be 51 on March 6, is coming north for this race only.
“I’m excited about it,” Stevens said by phone from his home near Santa Anita. “I’ve always loved San Francisco. I rode a lot of seasons up there, riding stakes races. I have a lot of fond memories.”
Baze, 55, has won Northern California’s steppingstone to the Triple Crown eight times, including six of the past nine. Stevens has won once, in 1990 aboard Silver Ending. But Stevens has an excuse for a lack of recent appearances – he was retired for seven years.
After starting a second career as a broadcaster and actor, Stevens launched his phenomenal comeback last spring. He won the 2013 Preakness aboard Oxbow. In November, he won two Breeders’ Cup races, the Classic with Mucho Macho Man and the Distaff with Beholder.
“I never expected anything like that,” said Stevens, who retired because of chronic knee problems.
Advancing age doesn’t make riding easier, he said.
“The older the body gets, the harder you have to work,” he said. “I’ll ride one race, but it takes 41/2 hours of tough work to get my body ready for that one race.”
Baze keeps adding to his legacy. On Jan. 31, he won six races in one day at Golden Gate Fields.
“We don’t mention the ‘R’ word,” Baze said of retirement. “After you do this job for 20 years, it becomes a routine. After 40 years, I don’t know any other way of living.”
Stevens’ last trip to the Bay Area was in 2006 as a member of the media to cover Baze’s ascent as the world’s winningest jockey. Stevens, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, marvels at Baze’s ironman qualities.
“What a great athlete he is – and a great ambassador for our sport and example to young riders,” Stevens said. “I turned 50 last year and it was like the magic number; all of a sudden, everybody mentions my age. But nobody mentions Russell’s age.”
Baze has more than 12,000 victories, but he’s rarely in the Triple Crown mix. Tamarando may give him that opportunity.
Tamarando, a top juvenile last season, won the 2013 Del Mar Futurity. He’s won three of nine starts and more than $505,000.
“I watched Tamarando race, but I’ve never seen him in person,” said Baze, who takes over for Rafael Bejarano. “Looking at the past performances (of the El Camino Real field), there’s not a lot of speed. I’ll let him place himself in a comfortable position, but we may be a little closer to the lead.”
Baze was trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s first choice for Tamarando. “I try to ride him on everything,” the trainer said. “I’m sure he fits this horse.”
“(Tamarando) has run well every time he’s ever run,” added Hollendorfer, who has won the El Camino Real five times. “If he isn’t there now, he’ll get back on the (Kentucky Derby) radar."
Hollendorfer pegs Enterprising as the likely pacesetter. “I expect Gary Stevens to send; he’s not bashful,” he said.
But Stevens can be coy.
“I’m not going to forecast what we’ll do,” he said. “(Enterprising) has speed. Actually, he’s better with a target; I don’t want to give anything away. (Trainer) Tom Procter is never big on giving me instructions. He pretty much turns me loose. We’ll play it by ear when the gates open.
“Enterprising is a very good horse. He’s a colt with a lot of potential, a lot of ability. ... He’s going in the right direction.”
Stevens also rides Candy Boy, who won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes last week at Santa Anita.
“In my position, you can never have enough Derby candidates,” Stevens said. “I’m in a lot better position than I was this time last year. I didn’t even have a hope of a Derby horse last year. Now, I’m sitting on a handful of very, very good ones.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.