09/05/2004 11:00PM

Farewell France, hello U.S.

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It is understandable that there would be some degree of indignation over the early departure of Gary Stevens from his French racing adventure. After all, he arrived to great fanfare last spring, and his association with Andre Fabre had the all makings of a grand piece of racing theater.

The horses, unfortunately, forgot their lines. Time after time, Stevens and Fabre came close in the big ones, but close is not good enough for stars of their caliber. Expectations dashed, French fans proved as fickle as horseplayers everywhere when Stevens failed to win - while gossip of trouble in the Fabre-Stevens paradise swirled around the hermetically sealed world of Parisian racing.

The final insult came in a story filed by Racing Post correspondents Desmond Stoneham and Jon Lees. Upon the announcement that Stevens would return to America, they wrote, in part, that "the 41-year-old Texan was at pains to quash rumors that he has had a bust-up with Fabre. . . ."

Yes, Stevens is 41. And yes, he left early, but according to the rider it was a decision reached with the consultation and approval of Fabre. But to call the man a Texan, for no good reason, without even thinking of the effect it would have on his family and friends back in his native Idaho . . .

(Apparently, to our European brethren, any American with a flag on his pants and a high profile is from Texas. Goodness knows how they got such an idea.)

So that's that. Stevens is back - again - after writing another chapter in his ever-fascinating career. And while there is no indication that he has signed a deal with Frommer's to endorse the upcoming line of travel guides, he is now fully qualified to conduct comprehensive tours of the racing scene in Hong Kong, France, and England, not to mention every corner of the North American universe.

Stevens looked right at home Monday morning in the Del Mar stable cafeteria, enjoying a typical French breakfast of coffee and Copenhagen with his new bride, Angie, and his daughter, Ashley. A steady stream of familiar racetrackers filed past with greetings, none of them at all surprised to see him. Even at mid-life, with a Hall of Fame career and a fairytale brush with Hollywood to his credit, Stevens remains the tough kid from Caldwell who is most at home in his own backyard.

"There are a lot of things I really enjoyed over there," Stevens said. "Especially my association with Andre. My respect for him is even greater now than it was before. But we both realized things weren't clicking the way we hoped they would, and we were both frustrated."

A rainy Deauville thwarted many of their plans, with the deep ground compromising a number of promising young runners. The sun did come out long enough, however, for Stevens to participate in an annual charity event at the seaside meet: a race aboard miniature donkeys along with such fellow French riders as Olivier Peslier, Christophe Soumillon, Olivier Douieb, and Eric Legrix.

"They've got the donkeys lined up, wearing nothing but a halter and a rope," Stevens said. "I climb on mine and somebody says, 'Wait, turn around first so we can get everyone's picture.' That's when they dropped the flag. So there I am, riding backwards, one hand on the rope, the other on the tail, and I'm digging into him with my heels. Of course I was trying to win."

He didn't, but at least Stevens was one of the last to hit the sand.

"Fortunately, it wasn't far to fall," he said.

Stevens wasted little time getting back in his American groove. Last Friday morning, he was working Chandtrue five-eighths of a mile for trainer Bob Hess in preparation for the closing-day Del Mar Futurity. Stevens went on to ride three winners over the weekend.

"Bob told me to carry a stick because he thought the colt was getting a little lazy in his works," Stevens said of Chandtrue, who is 4 for 4. "I had to disagree. My arms were burning, he was pulling so hard. By the time I hit the half-mile pole, I was really glad to be back."

So glad, in fact, that Stevens has given agent Craig O'Bryan the green light to aggressively market the repatriated rider. His arthritic knees, which once forced Stevens into temporary retirement, have rallied.

"While I was in France I got so fit, and my knees got so healthy, that I felt like I could do more work than I was given," Stevens said. "I'll be riding out of town for the next few weeks, during the fair meet in Pomona, but when Oak Tree starts I really think I might just go for it."

O'Bryan, sitting nearby, perked up.

"I do have the Fairplex book right here," he said. "What would that be, like the provinces?"

Stevens laughed.

"I rode a horse at Marseille," Stevens added, referring to the track in the southern port town. "It's a real nice little track. Has kind of a Del Mar feel. When they warned me about the tight turns, though, I told them they'd never been to Les Bois, or Pomona."

Welcome back, jock. At least the folks over here know where you're coming from.