03/24/2003 1:00AM

Better safe than sorry


ARCADIA, Calif. - The idea of getting on an airplane in Los Angeles, changing flights in London, and then heading directly into the most dangerous part of the world should give a sensible person pause.

Meet Gary Stevens, one sensible person.

There is no race on earth that Stevens would like to win more than a Dubai World Cup, and there is no program like the World Cup program for showering untold riches upon jockeys, trainers, and their patrons. Stevens has been there often enough to know what he is missing.

But when crunch time came last weekend for the father of four, Stevens - along with fellow jockeys David Flores and Jerry Bailey - decided that the geo-political risks outweighed the potential rewards. So, while such colleagues as Alex Solis, Kent Desormeaux, John Velazquez, and Tyler Baze made their final preparations to head for the United Arab Emirates, Stevens was home in Sierra Madre, dismissing any second thoughts.

"I'm glad I'm staying home," said Stevens, a Hall of Famer, who has ridden in every corner of the globe. "I think these guys are nuts to be going over there. I don't think they have any idea of the danger they're going into."

In fairness to the security situation surrounding the World Cup, Dubai racing officials have gone out of their way to assure this year's participants that the event will proceed without disruption. It is comforting to know that Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, the man behind the World Cup, is also his nation's Minister of Defense. So far, the only modification in this Saturday's World Cup program is the elimination of the festive pre-game show that traditionally features a stirring tribute to the Arab culture.

At the same time, it should be noted that Dubai is barely 500 miles from Kuwait and just 246 miles due east of Doha, in Qatar, where the U.S. military command is headquartered. This is roughly equivalent to the distance between Miami and Tampa, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, or New York and Washington, D.C.

Not surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one of seven independent states, is beginning to crop up more often on travel warning lists issued by various foreign offices around the world. Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department authorized the voluntary departure of family members and non-emergency personnel stationed at the U.S. Consulate in Dubai.

Furthermore, the State Department is urging U.S. citizens who remain in Dubai to register with the consulate and enroll in the emergency alert network to obtain the latest travel and security information. On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in nearby Abu Dhabi released a statement that warned of ". . .a possible terrorist attack against nightclubs in Dubai."

"Americans," said the alert, "are urged to avoid such locations."

The killjoys. With its coastal sprawl of luxury hotels and its opulent shopping souks crammed with spices and gold, Dubai offers the ultimate in the working racetrack vacation. Since the inception of the World Cup in 1996, visiting horsemen have been encouraged to sample a wide variety of entertainments, both daytime and night, and return home with glorious tales.

Now, according to the U.S. Embassy, their priority should be "avoiding crowds and keeping a low profile."

Low profile?! What happens when an American horse wins a race Saturday night and the stars and stripes are displayed? How do you keep a low profile after winning a $6 million race, or even one of the "lesser" races on the undercard?

"I'm leaving the hat at home," said 81-year-old Warren Stute, who will be trying to win the $1 million Godolphin Mile for the second straight year with Grey Memo. Stute's normal morning wear includes his trademark black Stetson.

If Grey Memo can defend his crown, he will be doing it without Stevens, his rider from last year.

"In a way, it was a very difficult decision," Stevens said. "I hope Sheikh Mohammed and his people don't take it as a slight. Hopefully, they'll understand. And I don't see any way they wouldn't.

"It's a big day of racing," Stevens went on. "We want to show our faces, and we don't want the stuff going on all around the world to necessarily rule our lives. But there comes a time when I think you need to be smart about things, too. I'm 40 years old, and it's tough enough to keep yourself healthy as it is, without putting yourself in harm's way."

It would also be tough to look his daughter in the eye. Ashley Stevens, age 20, is engaged to U.S. Army infantryman James Jeleniowski, who is bearing down on his 21st birthday. On Sunday, he was deployed to Iraq from his station in Italy. Having both a father and a fiance in the Middle East right now would be a lot to ask of anyone, even if they are volunteers.

"They were going to be married in May," Stevens said. "When I asked him how he was doing, just before he left, he said he was really, really nervous. All I could do was tell him we're all behind him, go kick some butt, and come back safe."