Plate-winning jockey Steve Bahen calls it a career
TORONTO, March 27, 2023– Steve Bahen, best known for his improbable 2002 Queen’s Plate triumph aboard 82-1 T J’s Lucky Moon, has announced his retirement from racing.
A lifetime winner of 1,574 races, 44 of them stakes, the Montreal native first entertained the idea of hanging up his tack at the conclusion of last year’s Woodbine meet.
After more reflection over the winter months, Bahen made it official over the weekend.
“I’m going to miss it, but I’m healthy now and if I kept doing it, now that I’m older, that might change. I don’t have any regrets. I had a good career and had some really nice wins.”
Born June 29, 1966, Bahen came to Toronto in his early teens and soon gravitated towards the racetrack.
He began walking hots for trainer Ted Mann during the summer months and eventually started grooming and galloping Thoroughbreds in the early-1980s.
On April 5, 1986, at the age 20, Bahen rode in his first race, teaming with Liberty Gain, an Ontario-bred son of Gain, to finish fifth.
While it wasn’t a storybook ending to launch his career – those moments would eventually come – he did manage to achieve his main objective.
“I didn’t fall off, so that was a good sign,” laughed Bahen.
On July 9 of that same year, Bahen recorded his first win aboard Michellerin for Stoney Brook Stables and trainer Yates Craig.
In 1993, Bahen won the Heresy Breeders’ Cup Stakes at Woodbine with Desert Waves. Three years later, he captured the Woodbine Oaks and Bison City Stakes with Silent Fleet. In 1997, he added the Breeders’ Stakes to his resume, after taking the final jewel in the Canadian Triple Crown series with John the Magician.
Two years later, he piloted eventual 1996 Horse of the Year, Mt. Sassafras, to a third in both the Queen’s Plate and Grade 1 Molson Million and a head-bob loss in the Breeders’ Stakes.
It was a chestnut by the name of Le Cinquieme Essai who provided Bahen with some of his most treasured wins.
He teamed with the son of Fastness, trained by Paul Nielsen, in 20 of his 33 career starts. In 2004, he piloted the William Scott homebred to victory in the International Turf Cup at Fort Erie and the Labeeb Stakes at Woodbine. A season later, they captured the Grade 3 Connaught Cup at Woodbine. Bahen also steered Le Cinquieme Essai to victory in back-to-back editions (2006-2007) of the Grade 2 Play the King Stakes.
But it was a victory on the biggest day on the Canadian racing calendar that thrust Bahen into the sporting spotlight.
On the afternoon of June 23, 2002, relatively unknown T J’s Lucky Moon, a son of Tejabo-Moonland Princess, took on 12 rivals in the 143rd edition of the Queen's Plate (now King's Plate), a wide-open race with no clear-cut choice.
A Molinaro Stable homebred, trained by Vito Armata, the dark bay was making his first stakes engagement in what was his sixth start. He arrived at the race having broken his maiden one race prior in a 1 1/16-mile main track race on May 25.
The Plate didn’t get off to a flying start for the pair making their first start as a tandem.
“He hit the gate coming out and stumbled a bit,” recalled Bahen. “Certainly not the way you want things to begin.”
Chasing his first win in the $1 million classic, Bahen had the second-longest longshot in the field travelling comfortably near the front through early fractions of :23.41 and :48.07.
“Looking back, I think the winning move was made when we went by the finish line and into the first turn. I went from the outside to the inside and eventually to the front because the horse on the lead was bolting a little bit and getting out. I just put him on top after that and let him cruise at his own pace.”
Leading the way by a half-length at three-quarters, T J’s Lucky Moon was a length clear at the stretch call.
Bahen knew what was coming. Despite the rising crescendo rippling throughout the packed grandstand, he could also hear it.
“I could hear the other horses coming. One came at me, and we put him away and then Anglian Prince came at me. I knew the wire was coming fast. About 20 yards away from the finish line, I felt that we had a big chance to win it."
When did he know he had it won?
“As soon as we got to the wire,” he quipped. “I remember right after it was over thinking that this was like winning the Stanley Cup. It was the dream of every jockey, especially the Canadian riders. If you played hockey growing up in Canada, it was wanting to win the Stanley Cup. If you were a jockey here, it was wanting to win the Queen’s Plate.”
The final time was a tepid 2:06.88.
“It was a slowly run race, but time only matters when you’re in jail,” offered Bahen. “That day, he was the best horse. The odds that day, he didn’t know what they were, and I wasn’t going to ride him like he was 82-1. I was going to ride him like he had every chance in the world. And when you look in the Plate history books, his name will always be there.”
He doesn’t watch the race replay often, but when he does, Bahen relishes the opportunity to recall every stride from the biggest moment in his career.
“My daughter and I were looking at my stats, and then it hit me that it was 21 years ago we won the Plate. Time has flown by. I’m sitting here at home right now and I see all the photos on the wall of that win and other wins around me. They’re nice to look at.”
There are other treasured picture-perfect recollections for the journeyman.
Another star for Bahen was multiple stakes winner Nipissing, who went on to win the 2013 Woodbine Oaks and Nipigon, a multiple stakes-placed standout and fellow Chiefswood Stables homebred.
“Nipissing, she was a very talented filly, one of the best horses I ever rode,” recalled Bahen, who also won the 2019 Woodbine Oaks with Desert Ride. “As a two-year-old, Nipissing won four straight races and then took the Oaks the next year. She was was very special to me. I would call Nipigon “Papa,” I really gelled with him. Now that I have more time to reflect, the more I realize how many nice horses I had the chance to ride.”
In 2018, Bahen and Tiz a Slam won the Grade 3 Dominion Day Stakes. Three weeks later, they took all the spoils in the Grade 2 Nijinsky. One year later, they took their show on the road and won the Grade 3 Louisville Stakes at Churchill Downs. Back on home soil, they combined to win the Grade 3 Singspiel and another edition of the Nijinsky.
But it wasn’t only his efforts in the saddle that earned the rider with the reputation as one of the hardest workers in the room widespread recognition.
In 2012, Bahen was named the recipient of the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award for his contribution to the sport. The award is presented to a Canadian-born rider, or a rider who has been competing in the country for more than five years.
Bahen’s top Gomez tale came years before he launched his own riding career.
“I went to Fort Erie with my dad because he was playing in an exhibition baseball game against the jockeys,” remembered Bahen. “Avelino shows up in a cut-off t-shirt, cut-off shorts and no shoes. He steps up to the plate, hits one a mile and gets a home run. He crosses home plate and then just left. I must have been six or seven, and I haven’t forgotten that moment.”
He also hasn’t forgotten his own final trip to the winner’s circle.
The victory was, on many levels, vintage Bahen.
On a snowy December 11, on the final day of the 2022 Woodbine meet, Bahen was in the irons of Gaston, a Kevin Attard trainee, for race 10 on the card.
After being steadied in tight travelling two-wide into the first turn, Bahen angled his mount to the rail near the three-sixteenths. The pair rallied along the inside down the lane, exchanging light bumps while dueling with an outside rival in the 1 1/16-mile trek on the Tapeta.
At the wire, Gaston and Bringer of Rain dead-heated for top spot.
It was vintage Bahen: a blue-collar, determined performance engineered by a savvy veteran.
“I remember that it looked to be a tough race and I didn’t know the horse too well. I had a little bit of a wild trip inside, waiting and waiting, and trying to find a seam. And he came like a freight train. I would have liked to have won on my own, but I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll take it.’”
As for how he would like to be remembered, Bahen, who won his 1,000th career race in 2005 with Dave the Knave, pondered the question for a brief moment before giving his answer.
“I really have no complaints,” said Bahen, whose mounts totaled purse earnings of $58.2 million (US). “It would have been nice to have won my own personal Triple Crown. I won the Plate and the Breeders’, but not the Prince of Wales, which eluded me. I just grinded away. I was lucky that I only had two injuries in all of that time I rode. I won some nice races and I’m happy. I think I had the respect of other riders and the fans, which means a lot. I hope people viewed me as someone who went out and always gave an honest effort. I was a guy who left school at 14 and worked hard in life. I’m proud of that.”
His association with racehorses and racing will continue on through his work with longtime partner, trainer Rachel Halden.
Bahen, whose jockey room stall still bears the Canadian flag he put up years ago, will gallop in the mornings at Woodbine and help around the Halden barn on the backstretch.
“Right now, Rachel has just started to ship back into Woodbine. I’m galloping the ones that are here now and helping out with everything else that has to be done in the barn. In a lot of ways, it’s like I haven’t stopped, but now I’m not riding in the afternoons. I still love the sport and I still love being around the horses. I always have and I always will.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms