The last thing Gary Stevens saw as he lay on the turf was a horse's hoof coming toward his face, first as a shadow and then as a bludgeon. Seconds earlier Stevens and his mount, Storming Home, had seemed in control of the Arlington Million, a 1�-mile turf race at Arlington Park, outside Chicago on Aug. 16. They had begun to circle the field at the mile pole and charged to the lead in midstretch, a perfectly timed rush by a fit racehorse and a gifted rider working as one. Twenty yards from the finish they were a length ahead when Storming Home—apparently startled—bolted to his right, across the grass and directly into the path of three other horses. Stevens held on desperately, but when Storming Home crashed into the left flank of Sulamani, Stevens fell to the ground in front of Kaieteur, whose rider had no time to react. As Kaieteur galloped over Stevens, the fallen jockey felt himself engulfed by a sudden warmth. This is it, he thought. I'm a dead man.
It would have been some epitaph. HALL OF FAME JOCKEY. HOLLYWOOD ACTOR. And the headlines: SEABISCUIT STAR DIES LIKE JOCKEY HE PORTRAYED. The obituary would have told of his farm-boy roots in Idaho and his rise to become one of the greatest riders in history. "One of those riders—and you can count them on one hand—who you don't even give instructions to," says trainer Bob Baffert. There would have been mention of the 40-year-old Stevens's three Kentucky Derby wins, his eight Breeders' Cup victories. But mostly, it would have recounted the last 18 months, when he became one with a distant and now suddenly popular history.
It happened like this: On the day of the Santa Anita Derby in April 2002, Gary Ross, the writer-director of the movie Seabiscuit, and Frank Marshall, the co-producer, came to the track in search of a jockey to play George Woolf, the swashbuckling 1930s rider who lived fast and died young on the racetrack. One glimpse at Stevens's looks and swagger and Ross said to Marshall, "That's him." Though Stevens at first resisted—"Pal, you don't have enough money, and I don't have enough time," he told Ross that day—it was a better match of novice actor and role than Ross could have imagined.
Stevens was a student of Woolf's long before Seabiscuit. He held his 25th birthday party in Woolf's old apartment above The Derby, a restaurant in the shadows of Santa Anita Park. "He liked a good time, but he was cool and calculating on the racetrack," says Stevens. "I understood the guy." In many ways, his life mirrors Woolf's: Both rode on despite career-threatening health problems ( Woolf, severe diabetes; Stevens, arthritic knees that forced him to retire in 2000, though he returned nine months later after discovering an effective medication), both were heavy for jockeys and kept a plug of chewing tobacco in their cheek. Both sat chilly and confident in the saddle, and out of it.
The day after Stevens brushed off Ross, Stevens's manager, Ed Goldstone, explained to his client that Ross was the creative mind behind such movies as Big and Pleasantville, and that he was making a Hollywood feature based on Laura Hillenbrand's best seller, Seabiscuit. After having dinner with Ross in Louisville before the 2002 Kentucky Derby, Stevens decided to sign on. "I was wrong on both counts about Gary Ross," Stevens says. "They had more than enough money, and I made more than enough time."
Stevens worked for four months on the movie, sharing the screen with such A-list actors as Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Tobey Maguire. In his first scene Stevens bursts onto a set representing the jockeys' room at Agua Caliente Race Course in Mexico and interrupts an exaggerated tale being told by Maguire, who plays jockey Red Pollard. Off camera, when the scene ended, Maguire threw his arm around Stevens and whispered, soberly, "Great job, buddy, but I gotta tell you, there's a little policy that you don't upstage the star." Stevens was crestfallen, until Maguire burst out laughing.
The movie has earned more than $119 million and picked up its share of Oscar buzz. Stevens is now represented by high-powered talent agency International Creative Management, which will sort through acting offers that come his way, though he is not currently signed for any projects. "He will have opportunities," says Ross. "It's not like we did movie magic in Seabiscuit and made him look good. That was him up there. I got incredibly lucky."
In Seabiscuit the story ends after Pollard wins one final race on the Biscuit in 1940, skipping the sad epilogue six years later in which the Iceman, as Woolf was known, dies at age 35 after falling from a horse on the first turn at Santa Anita. "It wasn't my goal to imitate that part of his life," says Stevens.
Yet at Arlington Park he nearly did. Approaching the finish line that sun-dappled afternoon, he knew he was in trouble when Storming Home began bearing out. "I remember thinking, Damn, I'm going off! I'm going to cross the finish line in front, but I'm going to get disqualified," recalls Stevens. "And when I hit the ground, I couldn't cover up, and I figured I was going to get killed."
As Kaieteur ran over him, it looked as if Stevens had been stomped on the head. "Nasty, really nasty," says jockey Kent Desormeaux, who was trailing the field on Olden Times. Stevens's daughter, Ashley, 20, was sitting in freeway traffic in California when her fianc�e's father rang her cellphone to tell her about the spill. She called her brother T.C., 19, "and he was flipping out, thinking our dad was dead," says Ashley, the oldest of Stevens's four children. In fact, Kaieteur's left front hoof had grazed Stevens's left earlobe before landing solidly on his neck and upper chest. It missed Stevens's temple but hit on the side of his neck so hard that Stevens's gold necklace was embedded in his skin. His chest was bruised, and his left lung collapsed. On the ambulance ride to the hospital the pain was so severe that Stevens thought he was having a heart attack. "It's the first time I've feared for my life in an ambulance," he says. "And I've been in a lot of ambulances." The lung was painfully reinflated in the hospital. The bruises were allowed to heal on their own. Stevens had been remarkably lucky.