He was aboard Jebrica in the sixth race at Santa Anita on Sunday, a $45,000 claiming race at a mile on the turf. They opened a length lead approaching the eighth pole only to be caught near the wire by two horses flying from off the pace.
Jebrica and Stevens finished a nose behind second-place Deacon Speakin' and paid $4.20 to show as the 5-1 third choice in the wagering.
"I thought, 'Man, this is going to be a storybook comeback.' It wasn't meant to be, but it was close enough," he said. "That's the first time I've knuckled down on one in seven years, and it felt good."
Aaron Gryder rode the winner, Maybe Tuesday.
"Gary looked good and it was fun to have him back in the jocks' room," Gryder said.
It was Stevens' only mount on the card. Afterward, he hurried off to shower, change and get in the HRTV booth in time to analyze the featured Monrovia Stakes.
"It feels good to get the cobwebs out, and I feel good," said Stevens, who battled knee pain for the last several years of his career.
Stevens announced last week he was launching a comeback because he still has a passion for riding. The jockey, who turns 50 in March, plans to juggle his TV work with the horse racing channel and NBC Sports while riding. He said he will be selective in how many races he rides in.
Stevens' 4,888 victories include three Kentucky Derbies and eight Breeders' Cup races, with $221,212,704 in purse money earned.