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After knee replacement, Gary Stevens returns to race in Breeders’ Cup XXXI

Gary Stevens hates being on the sidelines, especially during the Breeders’ Cup. No way would the Hall of Fame jockey miss this renewal at his home track of Santa Anita.

Barely three months after a full knee replacement, Stevens will return to race riding Friday with a long shot to kick off Breeders’ Cup XXXI. In his first race since his July 25 operation, he’ll be aboard Sivoliere in the $1.5 million Juvenile Fillies Turf, the first of 13 championship stakes during the two-day showcase.

Stevens, 51, also picked up the mount on Bakken in Saturday’s $1.5 million Sprint. Both Sivoliere, an Irish bred who has raced exclusively in France, and Bakken are trained by New York-based Chad Brown.

This time last year, Stevens was in the midst of another comeback, but he proved to be the star of that Breeders’ Cup, also at Santa Anita. He won the $5 million Classic aboard Mucho Macho Man and the $2 million Distaff with Beholder.

Stevens will be just an interested observer during Saturday’s Classic. But if he had a choice, he knows which horse he would ride.

“Bayern,” he said definitively.

Trained by Bob Baffert, Bayern – named for the Munich soccer team – is among a stellar cast of 3-year-olds in Saturday’s Classic.

“I think it will be an all 3-year-old superfecta,” Stevens said. “If I could, I would ride Bayern. (Belmont winner) Tonalist, he’s a beast. If he runs the same race he ran in the Belmont, it’s going to be hard to beat him. Shared Belief (the undefeated favorite) has done nothing wrong. Then you have California Chrome. If he runs back to his (Kentucky) Derby and Preakness form, it will be a great Classic.”

But unlike most handicappers, Stevens doesn’t think Bayern has to set the pace to win.

“He won’t be on the lead; Moreno will,” Stevens said. “(Bayern) doesn’t have to have the lead. If I was on him, I’d ride him just like I rode Beholder (in winning the Distaff) last year.”

In that race, Stevens and Beholder sat third before blasting away in the stretch to win by 41/2 lengths.

Stevens said he’s pretty happy just to be on any Breeders’ Cup horses.

“A comeback like this has never been done before on this level with a full knee replacement,” he said. “I know of only two other riders who have tried, and it wasn’t at this level.”

Stevens didn’t plan to take another timeout from his career. Away from the track for eight years, he became an actor and racing analyst before the urge to ride again brought him back to the saddle last year.

“I didn’t make the decision (to have surgery); it was made for me,” Stevens said. “The knee was shot.”

After riding a stakes in New Jersey on July 6, Stevens’ right knee was extremely painful on the flight home to California, he recalled. His doctor injected the knee with lubricant, a quick fix that had worked many times in the past.

“I had a negative reaction,” he said. “My leg swelled up like I’d never seen.”

His doctor drained 60 cc of fluid, then another 55 cc the next day. Stevens was told he had to replace the knee if he wanted to walk, let alone ride.

“My first goal was to live life as pain-free as possible,” he said. “I have a new knee with zero pain. I feel like I’m in the cockpit of a jet fighter instead of being a passenger.”

Stevens recounted his post-surgery regime (“walking and ice”) before he was strong enough to add more exercise. An avid golfer, he started hitting balls five weeks after surgery. Soon, he was back on his mechanical horse, working his riding muscles back into shape. He started riding a stationary bike, too.

“I hadn’t been able to ride a bike for 15 years; my knee wouldn’t bend 90 degrees,” he said. “Now, I can ride all day. … I was told the soonest I could come back was 12 weeks. At 91 days, I got my (doctor’s) release to return.”

Stevens won’t predict how long this latest comeback will last.

“I’m 51. I know I’ll hit the ground at some point; it happens,” Stevens said. “But (riding with a full knee replacement) is groundbreaking. Why do this? Because I can.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.


▪ Today: Five races, 2 p.m., NBCSN

▪ Saturday: Preliminary races, 12:30 p.m., NBCSN; Classic, 5 p.m., Ch. 3