US greats can't wait to duel at Happy Valley
'Geritol jockeys' Smith and Stevens may be getting on in years, but have lost none of their star power ahead of tonight's big meeting
For Gary Stevens it was a return to a happy hunting ground and for good friend Mike Smith it was an eye-opening experience as he got his first look at Happy Valley Racecourse ahead of tonight's Longines International Jockeys' Championship.
Video: Interview with Gary Stevens
At 50 and 48 years of age respectively, Stevens and Smith still have the skills that made them famous - as shown by the pair's performance at last month's Breeder's Cup meeting - and they still have the star power too, judging by the attention they received at yesterday's IJC press call.
The American legends of the saddle headline the four-race series, in which they will compete against some of the world's best jockeys, including local heroes Douglas Whyte and Zac Purton, for a HK$500,000 first prize.
Stevens made one of most memorable short Hong Kong stints of any jockey when he landed 20 wins from just 89 rides at a strike rate of 22.5 per cent during the 1995-96 season.
"It made me a better rider at a key stage of my career," Stevens said. "There is more pressure here for jockeys and trainers with the pool money that is bet and we don't take that lightly.
"You can become a fan favourite or become someone that the fans despise, but I was fortunate to have good success here and have a good following. It really taught me how to deal with pressure."
Smith was stunned at the location of the inner-city track.
"I feel like I'm in Manhattan - it's almost like if Central Park had a racetrack, it would be very similar," he said.
"It's absolutely beautiful. I can't wait to see what it is like under the lights."
Stevens and Smith have forged a close relationship over the years, which included a brief retirement and a stint on the sidelines for Stevens as he explored acting and media opportunities.
He played legendary jockey George Woolf in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit and more recently had a regular role in the HBO racing series Luck.
Although the pair have been dubbed the "Geritol jockeys" because of their advancing age, it's a love of the game, not multivitamins, that keeps them clicking along.
"We are both still passionate about the sport," Smith said. "The horse means everything to me and I'll do this until I absolutely can't do it any more."
Video: International Jockeys' Championship Interviews
For Stevens, a reduced workload has more to do with his career longevity. "I ride very little trackwork these days, I leave that to the young guys. I spend most of my time in the gym and riding races, that's how I stay in shape," he said.
"My attitude is that I'm retired, but instead of going golfing or fishing I go out and ride fast horses for a lot of money. I don't know how long I can do this though, there's no secret about the history of my knees.
"Even riding four races in a row [tonight] will be a challenge for me. I'll feel it on Thursday morning. I'm not going to candy-coat anything, that's just the way it is.
"I won't race again for about 10 days … so there's plenty of time for me to give it all and then recover."