02/10/2003 1:00AM

Delta suspends Meche


NEW ORLEANS - Stewards at Delta Downs handed jockey Donnie Meche a six-month suspension on Saturday for his ride aboard Cleaning House on Jan. 23 at Delta. Cleaning House, a heavy favorite in a trial race for the Graduation Futurity, finished third, and Meche was penalized for not doing his best to win the race.

Stewards, who held a hearing with Meche on Saturday, cited Meche for two rules violations. One states that he didn't use his whip "in a manner consistent with using his best efforts to win"; the other is a more general racing rule that forbids a rider from doing anything "that has the effect of diminishing the chance of the horse winning any race."

Cleaning House, who is owned by Grunwald Racing and trained by Steve Asmussen, returned to win the Graduation Futurity finals by a nose on Saturday night. He was ridden by Steve Bourque.

Meche immediately appealed his penalty, but the Louisiana State Racing Commission denied his appeal. The commission has the right to deny an appeal if a hearing on the matter is held within 10 days. The commission has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 17.

The six-month penalty was the maximum that could be applied by the Delta stewards, but the commission isn't bound by the ruling. If the judgment against Meche is upheld at the commission hearing, the penalty could be increased or lessened.

Cleaning House ran in one of two five-furlong trial races for the Graduation Futurity. The stakes was open to horses who were maidens as of Jan. 1, and the top five finishers from the $10,000 trials qualified for the final. Cleaning House, who had raced competitively with maidens at Fair Grounds, was favored at 3-5 odds. He didn't break well, and after racing behind the leaders on the backstretch ranged up with a move around the far turn. Cleaning House drifted in during the stretch run and wound up third, beaten 2 3/4 lengths.

Both Asmussen and Meche said Cleaning House had grabbed a quarter leaving the gate. Asmussen said a state-sanctioned veterinarian examined Cleaning House at Evangeline Downs, where Cleaning House was stabled, a couple days after the trial race and saw the injured hoof.

Meche, Asmussen's main rider the last several years, denied any wrongdoing. "I took care of the horse," Meche said. "He wasn't hitting the ground like he should have that day. I wasn't pushing him to overextend himself. I thought I did my job as well as I could."

A racing commission official said the investigation into the race remains open but declined to offer further details.