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Jockey's jump to NBC so far 'spot on'
By Times Staff
Published May 5, 2006
Jockey-turned-NBC analyst Gary Stevens would rate his new venture as somewhat tougher than acting - "on live television," he said, "there is really no margin for error" - but a little bit less stressful than the career he just left.
This time of year, Stevens normally would be preparing to ride in the Kentucky Derby, but Saturday the three-time Derby winner will be in the broadcast booth beside announcer Tom Hammond for the 132nd Run for the Roses. The jobs are not all that different, Stevens said, except for what happens on race day.
"I've been keeping track of these horses since late last fall as I would have preparing as a jockey," he said this week. "I went about it the same way: horses' temperaments, how they've been running in the prep races, and whether they can handle a distance of ground. The luxury I have right now is I still like six horses and I don't have to pick one until they're going into the starting gate, where the difference of being a jockey is I would have had to make a decision probably three weeks ago."
NBC officials say broadcasting the Kentucky Derby is all about luring in those once-a-year horse racing fans, while still satisfying the sport's most voracious enthusiasts.
So on paper, Stevens appears to be the ideal fit as the network's new horse racing analyst.
After all, in a sport where everyone oohs and ahhs over the way the horses look, Stevens managed to get himself named one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people in 2003.
A lot of people probably remember Stevens more for his well-regarded appearance as jockey George Woolf in the acclaimed movie Seabiscuit.
But racing fans know him for his place in history.
In 1997, Stevens rode Silver Charm to victory in the Derby and the Preakness before losing by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold in the Belmont Stakes. The following year, Stevens played the spoiler, riding Victory Gallop to a win at the Belmont over Triple Crown contender Real Quiet.
A member of the sport's Hall of Fame, Stevens retired in 1999 with debilitating knee pain but resumed riding in 2000 after successful surgery. He retired for good last year and was snapped up by NBC in January for a trial run in the network's broadcast of the Sunshine Millions.
NBC signed him to a multiyear deal in March to serve as analyst for the Derby, Preakness and other events.
"His movie experience got him to the point where the cameras are the third person in the conversation, and he can accomplish anything," NBC producer Sam Flood said.
"A lot of people right out of the sport don't know how to explain what they are seeing or what the athlete has gone through and Gary has that unique ability. ... So far, he's been spot on."