09/26/2003 12:00AM

Fear isn't part of Stevens's vocabulary


ARCADIA, Calif. - When he was 6 years old, and really didn't know any better, Gary Stevens scaled the heights of his mother's Quarter Horse, Candy, and rode off with a bunch of pals into the wilds of the Idaho-Oregon border.

Everything was going fine until they turned around. That's when Candy got wind of camp. He took off at full speed, with little Gary bouncing around in the middle of his mom's big saddle and hanging onto the horn for dear life. Instinct took over and the boy bailed out, smashing square into the side mirror of his dad's '67 Ford pickup and flipping onto the hood. By the time Gary hit the ground, he was out cold.

History will record that Gary Lynn Stevens got back on the horse. Man, did he ever - 26,805 of them to be precise, going into this weekend, when he will be riding at Belmont on Saturday and Santa Anita on Sunday.

Of those, 4,740 have returned victorious, including four in the Kentucky Derby and eight in Breeders' Cup events. At the age of 40, he has accumulated a Hall of Fame plaque, national championships, and Eclipse recognition, achieving nearly every significant milestone to which a professional jockey could aspire. Oh yeah, and he's in a movie, too.

Still, if Stevens could retrieve one of those 26,805 rides, at least among the most recent, he would appreciate a do-over in the Arlington Million of Aug. 16. That was the day Stevens and Storming Home wrote one of the most bizarre chapters in racing history, leaving the indelible, televised image of a jockey in blue silks and white pants twisting and trampled beneath dark hooves on an emerald green turf course.

Now, he is getting back on the horse. Stevens and Storming Home will be reunited on Sunday at Santa Anita, when the Oak Tree Racing Association commences its autumn meet with four significant stakes, including the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship.

Storming Home will be firmly favored, and rightfully so. He has finished first in three major grass stakes this year - twice with his jockey still firmly attached - and rates as America's best chance to bring home the grand prize in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

First, though, Storming Home must rehabilitate his image in the Hirsch. When he hits the lead at some point in the stretch, rest assured that his fans will be holding their collective breath. Stevens, however, won't be among them.

"To be honest, it's not even an issue," Stevens said Friday as he headed for a ballgame at Yankee Stadium. "It's the furthest thing from my mind. I have a lot of trust in the horse . . . perhaps too much trust. I'm not in the least bit worried the same thing might happen."

For those who missed it - and given the coverage it was almost impossible to avoid the story - Storming Home was on his way to a conclusive victory in the Million when something scared the living daylights out of him. Review of the video suggests that a photographer in light-colored clothing caught Storming Home's eye, but as far as the horse was concerned, it might as well have been a mountain lion.

As Storming Home swerved to the right, Stevens fought for control. Then the horse made contact with Sulamani, who was flanked to his right. By that time, Storming Home was convinced he was surrounded by predators. He ducked back to the left, and Stevens went down, directly in the path of the onrushing herd.

"There was a reason that it happened," Stevens said. "The patrol tape shows quite clearly a stray photographer who stepped out, wearing white pants and a white shirt. If his location can be found, well, let's just say there's a bounty on his head."

Stevens is still smarting from his wounds. He suffered a collapsed lung on impact and an assortment of cuts and bruises. The trauma of losing his air remains vivid, and he still has an occasional muscle spasm in a shoulder.

Of course, the damage did not stop Stevens from returning to the saddle barely three weeks after the incident.

"I won't tell you I'm not somewhat feeling the effects," he said. "I'd say I'm about 90 percent. I'm getting some physical therapy for my shoulder, and every day it gets a little better."

Stevens spent last week in Stockholm promoting the Swedish opening of "Seabiscuit," in which he plays George Woolf. As far as Stevens is concerned, the film translated well and the reviews were good.

"Luckily, the Swedish audiences speak a lot of English, so I was able to get a feel for their reaction," Stevens said. "I asked them if they were listening to the dialogue or reading the subtitles. They said they were doing both."

Still, Stevens's most vivid on-screen performance this summer may have been that spectacular Million, in which he did his own stunt work. Such falls have a way of ending careers, or worse.

"If it wasn't for a horse like Storming Home, I don't think I would have made this return," Stevens said. "He is that good, as good a turf horse as I've ever sat on. I'm looking forward to riding him again."

And this time, he plans to pose for a more flattering picture.