Racing: Exit Stevens with perfect timing

The word in the betting shop is that the punters never liked him. The word from the man is that he doesn't care.
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The Independent Online
GARY STEVENS' British experiment ends at Sandown this afternoon. It is probably a good time for him to be going. The American was the leading rider at York's Ebor meeting last week and the instigator of Royal Anthem's devastating display in Tuesday's International Stakes. Stevens leaves behind that sweet aroma and a total of almost 50 winners, ridden at a profit to a pounds 1 stake. Yet it has been a record compiled at a cost.

While many have marvelled at the sleek lines he has formed in the saddle, the races won from the front by acute judgement of pace, there has been another far more critical constituency. The charge sheet against Stevens includes the theory that he cannot use the whip in his left hand (although he is, in fact, left-handed). Largely, though, the detractors talk about Stevens' strength. They say he has trouble getting to the start on headstrong horses and trouble galvanising the lazy ones on the way back. Sir Michael Stoute's policy of limiting his jockey to either a day card or an evening one, but rarely both, is used as evidence.

Such fault-finding must seem odd to a man who has ridden more than 25,000 horses in the United States, 4,446 of them winners. He has collected $185m in prize money, including from three Kentucky Derby and six Breeders' Cup triumphs.

It is a proud record but, even as Stevens himself acknowledges, a worthless one to many British punters. It has been the American's misfortune that in the High Street shops his quiet style has been compared with that of Kieren Fallon. The average backer in these parts likes to see a bit of meat and potatoes in the saddle and there is certainly no-one more legitimately violent than the Irishman. As they look at the banks of screens, punters seem to think that, by comparison, Stevens helps his mounts as much as Charlton Heston in the closing moments of El Cid.

The jockey himself has brushed off criticism regarding technique, but was clearly discomfited when it was aired most publicly on Channel 4's The Morning Line last Saturday. And, on the steps of the York weighing room this week, he gave his true thoughts. He was angry, but he was still lucid. "I have one person to prove something to and that's Gary Stevens, and I've done that," he said. "I don't have to prove anything to anyone in betting shops. I'm not worried about the punter in betting shops. I'm worried about what the trainer I'm riding for says and what the owner says. They're the only people I have to please: the ones who hire me. I don't care what the guy in the betting shop says. I'm not working for him.

"It's unfortunate that I'm riled up just as I'm getting to leave. You may think I'm an ass, but I'm just being straight with you, telling it how it is. I should say that my record speaks for itself. Don't ask me to brag. You've got the statistics there. I've proved that I can win races with my own style. I've been doing that for 20 years. I've adapted the way I've needed to to the racing over here, but I'm not going to beat the hell out of a horse to win. I haven't needed to, have I?"

Gary Lynn Stevens, who is 36, arrived in Britain just before the Derby with the sentiment that he was going to see out his career here, probably going on for another five years. In the event he has lasted 11 weeks. A new job with the Thoroughbred Corporation now beckons and he will race largely in California and New York, in front of more universally receptive audiences. "But the nice thing about my new job is that it will allow me to come back here," he says, "and I think I'll feel very much at home when I do travel back here."

And, when he does return, the Stevens debate will continue. "I haven't been surprised by the criticism," he says. "It didn't matter about what my reputation was in the States. The majority of racing fans here didn't know who I was. They didn't know I was already a member of the Racing Hall Of Fame in the United States. That didn't matter to the English. I had to prove myself all over again.

"I wanted to prove to myself as well that I could accomplish some good things over here and I'm very proud about the way things have gone. But everyone knows it wouldn't have been possible without the mounts I was given. I have been fortunate to ride some very good horses since I've been over here. It's not like I've been a magician and made some bad horses win. I've ridden good horses and been able to capitalise on the opportunities I've been given."