By Maryjean Wall
Came a day this past autumn when Anthony Stephen unpacked the tack he thought he’d put away forever. Sometimes you just have to do things yourself to get the job done, he was thinking. He believed he could get more out of his own horses if he rode them in races himself.
He was right.
Rare is the owner/trainer who can leap into the saddle and get winning results. Or any results. Many would quickly hit the ground, having to take the walk of shame back to the rail while someone else caught up with their horse.
Stephen’s story is different. It began on horses in his native Trinidad, where he was a leading rider. It took him across continents to Macau, then to Canada, next to Qatar, and eventually, to Kentucky where he now lives. He clearly knows how to ride.
But this skill also produced high frustration after he retired from race-riding two years ago. He was having to watch others ride his horses. And he wasn’t necessarily liking what he saw.
He retired largely because his wife, Karla Stephen, a physician, laid down some pretty serious doctor’s orders. Neither she nor her colleagues liked what they saw in her husband’s brain scans. Particularly the scan after a nasty fall in a race at Keeneland in 2013, when he was kicked in the head.
“You can’t keep doing this,” she told him.
So, to keep peace at home, he quit riding. The couple bought a small farm in Nicholasville, south of Lexington, where Anthony installed an EuroXciser, an enclosed mechanical walking and jogging ring for horses. He also built a small turf course. He began to rotate runners between the farm and the Kentucky Training Center in Lexington. He currently has 15 in training.
This has kept Anthony busy, but he was not enjoying consistent results early on. Part of it, he thinks, was that riders did not always follow his orders. Karla confirms this and recalls the last race they watched together from the grandstand, when one of their horses ran.
“The jockey made a different decision that he (Anthony) would not have made,” she said, “and Anthony just dropped his head and was shaking his head and couldn’t even watch the race.”
This was the turning point. The last straw. The filly had black-lettered in her works and Anthony believed she was sitting on a win. He said he warned her rider to wait until the last minute to move because if she got the lead too soon she would quit.
“Head and head on the lead and she got beat,” he said. “I was really, really angry. My stomach was hurting me.”
He told Karla: “There’s a race in two weeks and I’m going to ride her. She didn’t believe me. I didn’t have a clue what I weighed, how fit I was for it.”
But he followed through with his plan. The filly won Aug. 31 at Belterra Park in Cincinnati for owners Mervin and Barbara McNamara, with Stephen down as trainer and jockey.
Since his return to race-riding (and only on the horses he trains), Anthony’s record speaks of nothing but success: five wins in 21 starts, with three seconds and five thirds. Throughout his jockey career he has won 364 races out of 3,804 starts with horses he rode earning $6,940,081.
His training record for this year is eight wins in 41 starts, with six seconds and eight thirds.
Stephen is 45, 5-feet-4, reports his weight at about 120 pounds on riding days. He does not plan to lose weight. He feels strong at his current weight and said strength is more important to him than being light in the saddle.
One interesting note comes from his time in jockey school as a teenager in Trinidad. Student jockeys were taught how to crouch and ride with their backs level, he said – or else.
“They’d put a glass of water on your back when you were practicing the crouch on the ground. If you spilled water you were punished: you had to cut 15 bundles of grass a mile away and put it on your head and walk back to the jockey school. Your boots had to be shiny; you had to be professional. I saw so many riders with talent quit because they couldn’t take it.”
Having seen the world from the backs of horses from here to Macau, Stephen has seen a lot. Two children from a previous marriage were born with hearing difficulties and required cochlear implants. This took Stephen to ride at Hastings Park in British Columbia, as a school with a good program for hearing impaired was two miles from the track.
Besides training horses and riding them, Stephen probably could give you a massage if you asked him nicely. He went through massage training during the interim from riding after getting kicked in the head at Keeneland.
But now, with reporting to the jockeys’ room whenever a horse he trains is in to race, Stephen has found his plate absolutely full. He hasn’t figured out how he will handle riding duties if two of his horses are entered on the same day at different tracks. Still, he knows he has made the right decision to return to riding.
No one knows his horses better than he does and it’s paying off. He said he’s not trying to be critical of jockeys. But …
“I gallop my own horses. I get to know them,” he said. “The time I have (in the paddock) is not enough for me to explain a horse to a jockey. A lot of jockeys don’t want to gallop horses. They want to breeze horses, so they see that horse one time, maybe never. They don’t know the horse.”
Maryjean Wall is the former turf writer for The Lexington Herald-Leader. She retired from that publication following a career that spanned four decades and included three Eclipse Awards and an AP Sports Editors Award. She holds a Ph.D. in U. S. History, has taught history at University of Kentucky, and continues to write about horse racing as a free-lancer. She has been published in Sports Illustrated, Wall Street Journal, Forbes Life, Cincinnati, and Keeneland, among other publications. She has authored two books focused on horses and racing: How Kentucky Became Southern: a Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders; also, Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel. When she is not writing, she is photographing, always pursuing the creative muse.