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Unretired Stevens proves he’s still elite jockey

Great athletes always seem to make the right moves at the right time. For example, compare these winning moves by jockey Gary Stevens and LeBron James.

James made up his mind in the Miami Heat’s 103-102 win over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday before the ball was inbounded on the final play of the game. He saw that Roy Hibbert, the Pacers’ best defender, was sitting on the bench. James knew if he could get to the rim, Hibbert would not be there to stop him. It was a winning move.

Stevens, in Saturday’s Preakness, was not intent on getting the lead aboard Oxbow. But when no other jockey went out early, Stevens seized control of the race early and won it decisively.

All pro athletes have the skills to excel. It’s what they have above their shoulders that separate them from the rest.

At age 50, Stevens is not the same athlete as when he was 30. Plus, he had to brush off seven years of rust after initially retiring at age 43.

What Stevens still has are his instincts to make the right decisions and experience to read a race on the fly and outmaneuver the other jockeys.

He is like Yoda, the wise Jedi Master, sitting in the jock’s room waiting to be called upon. And it took another wise one, trainer D. Wayne Lukas, to welcome him back.

Lukas and Stevens had won the Kentucky Derby twice together with Winning Colors (1988) and Thunder Gulch (1995). Lukas told Stevens he had a good one in Oxbow, that maybe a third Derby was in the cards.

However, their Derby did not work out as planned. When Palace Malice set a suicide pace of 45 1/5, Oxbow was caught up in that hot pace. Still, he held well to finish sixth.

Some savvy handicappers projected that Oxbow would be dangerous with a more reasonable pace in the Preakness. That was Stevens’ job. And when he led after a half-mile in 48 3/5, the race was over, and he had done his task perfectly.

Stevens and Lukas had gotten a huge emotional boost one hour before the Preakness when they won the Dixie with 24-1 long shot Skyring. Skyring and Oxbow are owned by Calumet Farm.

The Gary Stevens comeback story has a chance for more inspiring chapters as it simmers throughout this summer. He gives faith to some of us that maybe age 50 will be the new 30. At least I’m hoping so.

■u2007PREAKNESS VIEWERSHIP UP — NBC Sports had almost 10 million people watching the Preakness, up 20 percent over last year, according to a Nielsen report.

Las Vegas ranked 15th nationally, proving again that this market has a strong horse racing audience. That ranking didn’t include those viewing in Las Vegas race books.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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