Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, was born in Caldwell, Idaho, the youngest of three sons born to Ron and Barbara Stevens, in 1963. Ron was a race horse trainer who worked with both Thoroughbreds and American Quarter Horses. As a seven-year-old child, Stevens had to wear a brace for 19 months due to Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease. He began helping his father as a horse groomer at the age of eight. In high school, Stevens was a wrestler with potential to obtain college athletic scholarships. However, he dropped out of school in 1979 to pursue a career as a jockey…and the rest is Hall of Fame history. With a professional racing career that lasted four decades, and total purse earnings of over $221 million, we’d say he did pretty well.
For the latest in our Hippy Interview Series, Perthes Kids Foundation got the opportunity to interview the celebrity jockey, and former Perthes patient, to give insight into his HOF career, family, and inspirations that helped lead him through life.
10 Questions for Gary Stevens
1. When were you first diagnosed with Perthes, and how did it affect your childhood?
I was 6 years old. It didn’t keep me from doing much. I learned to ride a bike with one leg. I learned how to skip and run. But I was teased a lot from other kids. They called me iron side. It was much harder on my parents than it was on me. I would hear her crying in her bedroom at night. She and my dad wanted to do everything they could to help me.
2. When did you first fall in love with horses, and when did you know that you wanted to be a professional jockey?
I always had a passion as I was raised with horses. My mom was a rodeo queen and my dad became a horse trainer. We had horses in our backyard in Boise. I was 9 when I exercised my first horse. That was when I knew... going around a racetrack at age 9 on a thoroughbred.
3. What has been your most memorable accomplishment?
I think that making it into the Hall of Fame was my most memorable. It was a culmination of everything... of all the hard work and success and better things to come. The Derbys got me there but that to me is the epitome... the hall of fame.
4. What has been your greatest challenge in life?
Overcoming constant injuries. My professional career spanned 40 years. That’s really long for a professional athlete at the top level. The older I got the harder it got to prove I could still race at the highest level. We are one of the only sports where you can get in the hall of fame while still competing. I still had 20 years of my career after my induction. So it’s hard to keep moving up and staying there.
5. How did having Perthes disease as a child, shape you as an adult?
It taught me how to fight adversity. I could accomplish anything that I set my mind to. If you work hard enough you can overcome anything. Nothing is impossible... nothing. They told me I may not walk.... I think I proved them wrong there. I listened to people who knew more about it than I did and took that info and did something with it. No limits.
6. Who were the most influential people in your career?
My mom and dad for giving me a good work ethic. My brother Scott who is also a jockey and a few years older than me.
7. What was the name of your favorite horse you've ever rode? Why was he/she your favorite?
That’s a hard question. It’s like asking your favorite kid. If I had to pick I would say Silver Charm. He was a cool dude. He always showed up and always tried his hardest always. He tried as hard as I did to win.
8. How did you feel when you were inducted into the Hall of Fame?
I was still young (1997) and still riding. I had just won my third derby on Silver Charm. Now I look back and know I was worthy. But at the time when I was young you have different emotions. I had been nominated the year before as well. I was pretty excited. It was a pretty big high. You feel like you made it. The ultimate of my career. But at the time I didn’t feel worthy. I was in the middle of the strongest run of my career. I still had a lot of good years ahead of me. It was amazing!
8. What movies and TV shows have you been in, and do you have any upcoming projects?
I was George Wolfe in the movie, Seabiscuit. I was Ronnie Jenkins in Luck on HBO. Those were my big movie and tv show. I played a jockey on a few episodes of Wildfire. I was a racing analyst for NBC which was great. I was also an analyst for TVG and HRTV which are racing channels. Hopefully I get to do more tv shows and movies. I will be back looking for more of that now that I’m retired. I actually started as a racing analyst on FOX SPORTS. So I will be doing that on weekends and all summer from Saratoga Springs.
10. What advice do you have for kids going through the journey of Perthes disease right now? Any advice for the parents?
First off, there are no limits and nothing is impossible. Remember that. The medical field is also a lot more advanced than it was in 1970. I got lucky that the first orthopedic doctor that I went to diagnosed it correctly as it was still relatively rare. There wasn’t the support and information that is available now. There are so many resources out there and through the internet and social media it is easy for families to connect. So find that support. Know that kids are resilient and they will come through it stronger. Follow the advice of the doctors. Kids listen to the doctors they want to get you through this too. You can get through it and go on to live a completely normal life. I know two other people who had Perthes as kids as well. There are many ways to treat it now and your doctor will help you figure it out. I chose a brace and pretty much healed 100 percent. But that is what worked for me.
11. (bonus question) What does it take to become a professional jockey?
Well you have to be the right size and stature. So height and weight haha. Not take a day off. Literally. Super intense work ethic. Get hip every morning early. What you put into it you get out of it. You make your own luck by hard work and the harder you work the more you get out of it. That’s one thing I say with pride.... that there wasn’t a single jock that out worked me.
— Gary Stevens, former Perthes patient, Horse Racing Champion, Hall of Fame Jockey, and now, Global Ambassador for Perthes Kids Foundation
More information about Gary Stevens…
Stevens burst upon the national scene by winning the Kentucky Derby in 1988 with Hall of Famer Winning Colors. He won the Derby again in 1995 with Thunder Gulch and also in 1997 with Hall of Famer Silver Charm.
Along with his three victories in the Kentucky Derby, Stevens won the Preakness Stakes three times (with Silver Charm in 1997, with Hall of Famer Point Given in 2001 and with Oxbow in 2013), the Belmont Stakes three times (with Thunder Gulch in 1995, Victory Gallop in 1998 and Point Given in 2001) and eight Breeders’ Cup races.
Stevens has also won a record nine runnings of the Santa Anita Derby and in 1993 became the youngest jockey to surpass $100 million in career earnings. He won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1996, the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey in 1998 and the Mike Venezia Award in 1999.
Stevens retired in 2005 with 4,888 career wins and purse earnings of $221,212,704. He returned to the saddle in 2013 and won the Preakness with Oxbow for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. He has also found success as an actor and television commentator. Stevens portrayed Hall of Fame jockey George Woolf in the film “Seabiscuit,” starred in the HBO series "Luck" and has done racing analysis for NBC Sports, HRTV and TVG. He returned to riding by mid-October 2014, accepted mounts for the 2014 Breeders' Cup, and rode a winning race by mid-November 2014. Following the 2016 Breeders' Cup, he again took time off, this time for a hip replacement, returning to racing in March 2017. Due to his multiple joint replacements, "The Bionic Man" became one of his nicknames.
Gary Stevens was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1997. Now that he is officially retired from racing, he currently works as a horse racing TV commentator. He has also decided to give back to the disease that helped shape who he is, and to help inspire other kids like him, by becoming a Global Ambassador for the Perthes Kids Foundation - which is great for when we go horseback riding this Summer at Camp Perthes!
Dr. Harry Kim & Earl Cole
A Perthes discussion on facebook live
Perthes Kids Foundation attended the Controversies in Pediatric Limb Reconstruction (CPLR) conference, which was held at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas, Texas on February 8-9, 2019. Dr. Harry Kim & Earl Cole shot their second episode of “Joined At The Hip” while at the conference, to chat about the latest in Perthes treatments, research and advocacy - and share some interesting Perthes stories with their global online audience. The episode was streamed worldwide on facebook live.
Dr. Harry Kim is an orthopedic surgeon and Perthes specialist/researcher at Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Dallas, TX, and is the Founder & Director of the International Perthes Study Group.
Earl Cole is the Founder & Executive Director of the Perthes Kids Foundation and Camp Perthes International. He is also a former Perthes patient, that was diagnosed at the age of 7.