Kentucky Derby 2012: 'You've got to have a horse that handles the atmosphere'

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Over his 40 years in and around the business, Gary Stevens has gained a unique perspective on Thoroughbred racing.

He is best known, of course, as the jockey with 4,888 career wins to his credit, including three Kentucky Derbies and Belmont Stakes, two Preakness Stakes, eight Breeders' Cup races, and a record nine Santa Anita Derbies. His mounts have collected more than $221 million, and he's a member of the Racing Hall of Fame.

He's also served as a jockey agent, a trainer for his Gary Stevens Racing Stable (which was disbanded two years ago due to the demands of his schedule), an actor in movies such as "Seabiscuit" and the recently canceled HBO series "Luck," and a racing analyst for NBC, TVG and HRTV.

It's in that last capacity he'll be front and center on Saturday, May 5, when NBC presents coverage of the 138th Kentucky Derby from Churchill Downs in Louisville.

The first leg of racing's Triple Crown is run at 1 1/4 miles and features the sport's top 3-year-olds. While each of the three races has its particular challenge, the big one here is crowds, and not just on the track. Yes, with up to 20 horses, the Derby typically has the largest field of the Triple Crown races, but it also draws the most humans, which can be distracting to the equine athletes on the track.

kentucky-derby-2012-horse.jpg"You've got to have a horse that handles the atmosphere of 130,000 people," Stevens tells Zap2it.

 "You know, they have never seen a crowd like this, and they probably will never see another crowd like that in their career unless it happens to be Breeders' Cup day. ... It's the first time that any of these 3-year-olds will be asked to run a mile and a quarter, and that's the question mark: not only which horse is going to have the speed but also going to have the stamina."

As a jockey, Stevens liked to be on a horse with early speed.

"Mentally and physically, I preferred to have a horse that could lay up close to the lead," he says, "that was very tactical, that had speed when you needed it. And that's what I look for now when I'm analyzing these races. I look for a horse with a certain type of style ... a horse that has speed from the gate to keep himself out of trouble in traffic, and obviously the less traffic you have to go through, the more chances are you're not going to get stopped."

But unlike some jockeys, Stevens isn't a fan of going straight to the rail.

"Obviously that's the shortest way around the racetrack," he says, "but I think you've got to put your horse where he's the most comfortable. Some horses are more comfortable outside of horses; some horses will race in between, down inside or whatever. So it just depends on the individual that you're riding."

Until recently, Stevens showed his acting chops in "Luck" as troubled jockey Ronnie Jenkins. The series was canceled in March after three horses were injured during filming and had to be euthanized. Stevens was disappointed that the low-rated though critically acclaimed series didn't make it to a second season, but he's hopeful more such roles will come his way.

"It was very easy to relate to so many different situations," he says of acting in the racing drama, "whether they were life situations or racing situations. So I enjoyed it. Hopefully, I will get some other opportunities. I'd actually like to work outside of horse racing and experiment with my acting even further at some point."
Photo/Video credit: NBC