As preparations are well under way for the 2019 York Ebor Festival, it is hard to believe that twenty years have passed since Royal Anthem illuminated the Knavesmire with a stunning victory in the Juddmonte International Stakes.
His story was part of a much bigger one, as his rider that afternoon, American jockey Gary Stevens, added colour and intrigue to a long, warm summer in 1999.
Course Specialist was hugely privileged to catch up with Gary recently, as he recalled his time in England, riding for two training legends and of course partnering Royal Anthem.
The seeds were sown on Gary’s English adventure the previous year, when he met up with Sir Michael Stoute in Dubai.
At that time, Gary was already a global superstar of horse racing, with a glittering resume that included three Kentucky Derby victories (Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch and Silver Charm), in addition to the Preakness (Silver Charm) and the Belmont Stakes on Thunder Gulch and Victory Gallop.
Another important victory had come on the Sir Michael Stoute trained/Sheikh Mohammed-owned Singspiel, in the 1997 Canadian International at Woodbine.
When Gary arrived in Newmarket, he wasn’t sure what the reception would be for him. He needn’t have worried. English racing has long welcomed overseas riders who have carved their niche in the great annals of turf history.
Steve Cauthen, the Kentucky Kid, who arrived on these shores as an 18 year old, became part of the fabric of British racing as fans took him to their hearts. Steve was still fresh in our memories, while Italian Frankie Dettori was already embraced as an adopted son.
So Gary’s arrival and reputation were keenly anticipated by British racing, particularly as he was coming over to take on one of the biggest jobs anywhere in the racing world, as stable jockey to Sir Michael Stoute.
“Sir Michael and I spoke in Dubai in 1998 and he let me know that he was interested in me coming over to England as stable jockey.
“I had been leading money winning jockey in America several times and we met in Dubai and talked about it and came to an agreement,” Gary recalls.
“He spoke to all of his main owners – the most powerful owners in the world, people like Sheikh Mohammed, Lord Weinstock, Khalid Abdullah, Cheveley Park and the Magniers and they were happy for me to ride.
“We formed a partnership and a friendship that lasts today.”
Gary decided for the early part of 1999 to focus on racing in North America, riding in the Triple Crown before heading to England as the height of summer arrived.
“The idea was to ride in the Triple Crown and to come over when the major Flat Season was kicking on.
“The first major ride I had came in the Derby on Beat All and we finished third (behind Oath). I had never ridden at Epsom before!
“I had ridden a winner at Sandown on my first day on the job, which was about ten days before Epsom.”
The undulations of the South Downs made for an entirely different race riding experience than those Gary was used to in the States.
The variation in British racecourses quickly made Gary very aware of the differences between racing on different sides of the Big Pond.
“The racetracks were more difficult and I adapted my riding style and the way I sat on a horse.
“But I am ashamed to say that I never won a race at Epsom. I really wish I could have won a race there; I finished second but never got that victory.
“With the undulations and the straight mile at Newmarket, with its uphill final two furlongs, you ride it in a different way.
“I had to change and it made me a better jockey for the rest of my career.”
Not only was Gary learning on the job, but he was competing against jockeys with a lifetime of experience, who had honed their craft on British racecourses.
“I learned quickly which were the best riders and I figured they were the ones to follow closely during races as they would invariably be involved in the finishes.
“I figured that in a race you follow traffic and stay close to the best.
“There were lots of very talented jockeys but the three that really stood out for me were Frankie Dettori (who I already knew), Richard Hughes and Kieran Fallon, who I built up a great friendship with, which still lasts today.”
Any doubts that Gary might have had about the welcome he would receive in the weighing room, were quickly dispelled.
“I was pleasantly surprised as I didn’t know if I would be accepted.
“It was completely the opposite and I was accepted and helped. People like Mick Kinane got on very well with me and helped.
“There was a mutual respect and I learned from other jockeys and hope that I was able to help some of the younger jockeys at the time too.
“One of the most valuable lessons I learned was that there were a lot of different riding styles and there are many ways to skin a cat in terms of riding styles. I adapted my own racing style and it was a great experience!”
But it was not only the race riding experience that was something of a culture shock for Gary.
Riding work in the mornings in Newmarket, a bustling country town, means walking horses through traffic, to reach gallops which are undulating and set in rolling countryside or on flat heath land, was a totally new experience to riding work on the racetrack in America.
“I rode for Sir Michael two days a week and I always loved morning workouts. That is where the work really takes place – the rewards come on race afternoon but all the hard work is done in the morning. Morning work was something I always loved and probably kept me in the sport as long as I did.
“Riding work in Newmarket got to be a routine that I fell in love with. You could be sat on a horse for 45 minutes or an hour, walking to the gallops, crossing a busy road, sharing jokes and conversation with the stable lads and lasses.
“But a lot of planning goes into training. I remember observing which gallops Sir Michael Stoute would use when preparing a horse, according to the race.”
Gary soon found his feet and immersed himself in the culture of British racing.
But then fate dealt him an unexpected hand.
“I had ridden for Prince Ahmed Salman in America, before I came to England.
“I was enjoying my time in England and at Glorious Goodwood, had just ridden a couple of winners, when the news broke that Kieran and Sir Henry Cecil had split.
“Soon afterwards, I received a phone call from Prince Ahmed’s racing manager, Richard Mulhall.
“He asked if I would be interested in riding in America for Prince Ahmed. I told him that I was happy but then he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.
“In the meantime, Sir Michael Stoute called me, having got word that I was returning to America and he asked me to ask Kieran, if he would be his stable jockey.
“I was going to play golf with Richard Hughes, Frankie and Kieran and I was sharing a golf buggy with Kieran and we were opening champagne as driving down the first fairway, when I told him! I remember him saying “You’re an ass!”
The rest is of course history, as Kieran took the job with Sir Michael and landed back to back Derbies in 2003 and 2004 aboard Kris Kin and North Light.
Gary in the meantime, was the new rider of the Thoroughbred Corporation horses, which included an imposing four year old called Royal Anthem.
Trained at Warren Place, by Sir Henry Cecil, Royal Anthem had not raced at two but had made giant improvement with age – and to that point, had been one of the horses Kieran Fallon had regularly partnered.
“So the next festival was the Ebor,” Gary remembers.
“I was to ride Royal Anthem and Kieran couldn’t have been more genuine and kind. He told me every secret about Royal Anthem and I rode to Kieran’s instructions in the Juddmonte.
“No-one rooted more for Royal Anthem. Kieran loved that horse.”
Kieran and Gary had effectively switched roles and as the saying goes, one good deed deserves another.
Gary’s good deed for Kieran was to help with the preparation of an exciting two year old colt that Sir Michael Stoute trained, who would ultimately land a Classic under Fallon.
“I rode King’s Best to win his maiden at Newmarket and coming in, told Sir Michael that he would win the Guineas the following year.
“He laughed and asked how I could know, when I had never ridden in the Guineas! But the following year, he did just that, under Kieran.”
But now Gary was heading to Warren Place, the legendary base of Stoute’s great rival and friend, Sir Henry Cecil.
“I had one sit on Royal Anthem and was impressed.
“The two trainers were fierce competitors with each other but friends.
“One morning I met Henry on Warren Hill and I asked him how he knows he has a good horse.
“Racing uphill on the gallops, there is a section where the horses temporarily disappear from view and then reappear at the top of the hill.
“He said that if they are still travelling when the reappear, then you know you have a Derby horse.
“Henry was a great man, a peaceful man and a great horseman.”
The 1999 Juddmonte International Stakes
As the big race neared, Gary was very clear on his biggest danger at York.
“The thing I feared most was me making a mistake.
“I knew I was riding the best horse and he gave me a great feel before the race.
“Henry gave me very few instructions. He told me to hold him up but said “If you feel something develop, use your own judgment.”
“We hadn’t gone half a mile into the race and he gave me the feel that he was invincible on the day.
“I wanted to wait until the home straight and I let him glide and waited until the furlong pole and he just pulled right away.”
It was a scintillating performance as Royal Anthem slammed Greek Dance by eight lengths, with Sir Henry’s Chester House taking third place.
In the immediate aftermath, Royal Anthem’s sensational victory drew comparisons with some of the greatest equine names in racing history.
Gary Stevens had not been on these shores very long, but had now formed a partnership with a prospective superstar.
But it was sadly all too short-lived.
“That evening we went out and celebrated a bit, but I was riding a lot of top horses (including King’s Best) that week and I ended up Champion Jockey that year at York.
“That was the last major meeting I rode before I went back to America.”
“If I have any regrets in my career it would be that I left.
“I went with the financial end of it rather than my heart, but also had some difficulties with my knees and the undulations of the European courses weren’t helping.
“ I had thought that coming to Europe and racing on turf would help my knees but it didn’t.
“I spent plenty of time in Sir Michael’s swimming pool and would apply lots of ice on my knees going from race meeting to race meeting.
“And there were a lot of meetings and lots of hours spent in the car. I got a new respect for English jockeys for the travel and I was not sure how many of them survived on the prize money on a normal run of the mill day’s racing.”
Gary’s career Stateside delivered him a glorious Indian Summer of success, but was interspersed with periods of injury and retirement.
Great horses followed Royal Anthem, names like Point Given and Oxbow added further Triple Crown lustre to Gary’s resume, as did the great Beholder and Mucho Macho Man, at the Breeders’ Cup.
But that brief spell in England – and the success on Royal Anthem, rank highly in Gary’s fondest memories and helped shape him going forwards.
“I love Newmarket; it is one of my favourite places on Earth.
“In America, we have Lexington, Kentucky, which is the racing capital. In England it is Newmarket. In France you have Chantilly – and I have spent time at all three.
“I felt as warmly welcomed in Newmarket as in Lexington and I was not afraid to do the rounds and visit the pub and have a pint with the stable lads who would prepare the horses for the afternoon.
“It was a part of the culture that I loved.”
Gary’s magnificent riding career came to an end in 2018 and he now does TV work Stateside, where he of course made an enormous mark as a jockey.
But he can also proudly reflect on his spell in England in 1999 and a remarkable York performance, which people still talk fondly about.