In the moment when it was finally over, there was no fanfare. No one stopped to recognize the feat unfolding in front of them that would soon be no more–the life’s work that would never be repeated. No one stopped to acknowledge what had finally come to an end.
There were just footsteps, walking away from the only place ever known to an athlete as “home.” Walking away from the place where dreams had been chased, where competition had been looked square in the eye and denied success time and time again. Where stories had been written, legends born, and losses fared with great dignity. Where, every time, winning was such sweet victory.
But when it was over, all that was left behind was a deep void. A sadness in the finality of its ending that was most palpable only once the moment was complete. But in the moment, it just slipped by without particular observation.
For Gary Stevens, his final moments as a jockey were of no specific marking. There was no inclination, after all, that this would be the last ride: that these would be the final quiet rituals in the jockey’s room, the final walk over to the paddock, one last leg up and one final post parade. There was no inclination at all that this would be the last and, thus, there was no moment of reverence. No particular moment to soak in all that this last ride would mean, would signify, for a jockey who dedicated every waking moment to horse racing.
The thought had been on his mind that if there were no Kentucky Derby hopefuls clearly in the making by the end of February then he would walk away from the sport of his own volition, on his own terms…satisfied.
“I’ve ridden a lot of horses, and once they’re retired, it’s like that’s the gold at the end of the rainbow and it’s really rare,” he says of the feeling he has chased every day his entire career, the one that always made it so difficult to retire before…though he tried. It’s the same thing that has kept his mother on edge, the thing she knew would keep both of her sons in the game for as long as they could. She had stopped watching their races live, listening to the radio versions instead.
“How much longer are you doing this?” She recently asked her son. “There’s always one that keeps you going…”
“Yeah, well, that’s what this game is all about,” her son replied, his optimistic defiance outweighing his mother’s worry. But then that opportunity was taken away when a post parade incident on a Saturday like any other nudged his vertebra into dangerous territory, and though surgery is on the horizon he’s lucky to not be in a wheelchair. “I was told I couldn’t ride anymore and that makes it black and white; this is the way it is. I’m not going to ride anymore, not even for pleasure.”
For Silver Charm, his final moments as a Triple Crown hopeful faded from existence when Touch Gold snuck by him in the Belmont Stakes. While the winner’s circle filled with a crowd deep in celebration, a horse and his jockey slipped off into the wings – a quiet, unceremonious, ending. There would be no marking of a journey of great hope, great aspirations, coming to a close. It would just be a defeat.
“Getting beat in the Triple Crown, it’s something I’ll never forget, when he should have won it,” Gary says about the horse he calls one of the best he’s ever ridden. “I killed myself. There’s not a night that I go to sleep that I don’t think about that race. I felt a high of all highs when I hit the sixteenth pole… and I was like ’son of a gun, he’s going to pull it off and be a Triple Crown winner’… and in two strides being the highest high you could ever have to the lowest low.” He pauses, twice, silence hanging where words should be as the memory catches in his throat, eventually breaking free as tears.
When Gary and Silver Charm are reunited they are like two old souls finding their way back to each other once again. “If he was a human I would hang out with him as much as I could, he was always there for me when I needed him,” Gary says. And though when Silver Charm’s run at glory was stolen away there was a deep sadness, a sadness in knowing there would never be another chance to rewrite that story and change that ending, he is admired and adored in retirement as if it had been written with a win. His story is told as one of a legend, of a horse who brought fans on one of the greatest journeys in time, his defeat in that moment merely skimmed over, weightless and irrelevant. For, in reality, it is what he accomplished in the minds of his fans that makes him immortal; it never is, and never will be, about what Silver Charm didn’t accomplish.
The next time Gary and Silver Charm meet they will have more in common than ever before–both having completed the most important chapters of their lives. And though there is a sadness in finality, there is also something more: just as Silver Charm lives on as a legend, having changed the lives of so many and leaving a legacy behind, the same will always be said about Gary Stevens.