By Steve Ginsburg
(Reuters) - Happy, healthy and chock-full of confidence, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens says he is returning to the track after a seven-year hiatus for one reason: because he can.
In fact, Stevens believes he can return to the saddle as a better rider than the one who won the Kentucky Derby three times and over $221 million in purses.
"My body and my brain are telling me I can come back," Stevens told Reuters on Friday in a telephone interview from Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. "It's not something that just happened overnight.
"I've spent the better part of the last three months preparing for what's about to happen. I'm basically trusting my instincts."
Stevens announced Thursday his intention to ride again and that his first time in the starting gate will be aboard Jebrica on Sunday in a $50,000 claiming race at Santa Anita.
The affable jockey had hung up the tack in late 2005 with a battered body and a right knee that caused so much pain it was hard to walk. His road back was almost by accident.
"It started out I just wanted to get on a couple horses in the morning for exercise and fun -- for my own well-being," he said. "The way I felt I was thinking, 'Man, I wish I felt like this the last six or seven years I was riding.'
"My body just continued to improve."
A three-time winner of the Belmont Stakes and a two-time Preakness champion, Stevens captured 4,888 races during his illustrious career, which began in 1979.
"If I get any inkling I'm not a shadow of what I once was and that I'm not an asset to the horses I'm riding, the boots will get hung up as quick as they're going back on," he said.
"I don't plan on going out there and cheating the public, the owners or myself."
Stevens, who will turn 50 in March, weighed 133 pounds as a racing analyst for HRTV last year and Friday was at 119 -- a few more pounds then he will have to carry on Sunday.
He attended a 12-week program at a Seattle facility ostensibly for obese people and finished it in six weeks. His body fat went to 15 percent from 25 percent.
Stevens said he will "cherry pick" his mounts and will not be a regular rider at any track. The Idaho native said he is committed to be an analyst for NBC during the 2013 Triple Crown.
"I'm not going into some intramural league," he said. "I'm coming in at the highest level. There's no warm-up. I'm diving into the deep end. I've got faith in my body and my reaction time.
"Whatever I lack in physical abilities that I had when I was twenty-something, I can make up in experience. It's like watching a veteran quarterback, like Peyton Manning.
"He may not be able to run as fast but it doesn't matter. My reaction time is there. And I can read a defense pretty good. That's what I'm relying on.
Stevens said it was too early to tell if he would ride in this year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.
"Why am I coming back? Because I can. I expect to be better than when I left. Physically I feel better than I did the last six years I was actively riding. Let's see how it plays out."
Stevens, who has won eight Breeders' Cup races, insists he will not be nervous when entering the starting gate on Sunday.
"It's weird, last night was almost like the Twilight Zone," he said. "I'm watching the Fiesta Bowl, sitting on my chair with the fire going, waiting for a big race on Sunday.
"I'm not nervous at all. I'm excited. It's a weird feeling. I feel like I've never been away."
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Frank Pingue)