07/13/2004 11:00PM

His exile over, Meche regroups

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Sunny Taylor/Reed Palmer Photography
Back on the track after a year's suspension, Donnie Meche takes a horse out during training hours at Louisiana Downs.

It is 227 miles west and a little more than four hours by car from New Orleans to Vinton, La. If you are a stranger, the high crossing of the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge and the sprawling Atchafalaya swamp might hold your interest. If you grew up somewhere nearby, it is just a long stretch of Louisiana road.

Donnie Meche of Mire, La., is no stranger to the territory. He made the drive on Jan. 23, 2003, and it was a trip with little immediate reward. Meche was going from his Fair Grounds base in New Orleans to little Delta Downs in Vinton to ride in a $10,000 race. His horse was a maiden named Cleaning House, and he would be running in one of two trials for the Graduation Futurity.

Meche might have griped about the trip, but he made it because Steve Asmussen, one of the country's leading horsemen, trained Cleaning House. Meche was Asmussen's first-call rider, his go-to guy.

Cleaning House was favored at 3-5 to win the trial. He broke from post 8, was eighth early, then seventh, then third. "Outside turn, closed fast," reads the short comment from the official chart of the race - but Cleaning House never advanced beyond third.

Two weeks later, Meche returned to Vinton, not to ride, but to meet with the Delta stewards. The Louisiana State Racing Commission and the stewards had opened an investigation into Cleaning House's performance, and Meche had come for a final hearing. When he left, he had a six-month suspension. Stewards cited two rules violations, one for not whipping Cleaning House enough in the stretch, the other for engaging in an action that had the effect of diminishing his mount's chance to win.

Translation: Donnie Meche had held his horse.

Meche fought back. He got an injunction to continue riding, and in late April, his case went before the racing commission. They tacked six months onto the stewards' ruling, suspending Meche for a full year. His court appeal lasted into the fall but went nowhere in the end.

Meche still remembers that January drive. "I get sick thinking about it," he said. "I was riding everywhere in the country. I go to the bottom of the barrel, to ride at that track, and they're gonna do that to me."

And now it is finally over. "I served my time and then some," said Meche. And he is back in business Friday at Louisiana Downs, riding Unbridled Trick in the eighth race for his old patron, Asmussen.

"I feel hopeful," said Meche. "I can't wait to get back to riding."

But worry tinges the hope. Meche wonders how much his tarnished reputation will limit his opportunities. He begins anew in Louisiana, where people know him well, but he must reapply to be licensed in each new state he rides. Everywhere Meche goes, he drags the suspension along with him.

"I don't know where they're going to let me ride now," he said.

"Some places, I guess I won't get to. I don't really know if I can get back to where I was before."

To this day, Meche, 29, and Asmussen, 38, plead innocent. Talk to those people who have seen the Cleaning House race, and you will find a wide range of opinion. Some will say that Cleaning House was clearly held. To others, things are much fuzzier. Cleaning House stumbled leaving the gate, and both Meche and Asmussen say Cleaning House wasn't traveling smoothly.

"You can look and see riders every day with horses that don't hit the ground good," Meche said. "You do what you have to do to protect yourself. My horse damn near pulled his hoof off leaving the gate."

You could make a cottage industry out of interpreting the race, and it wasn't going to change the fact that Donnie Meche was back in Scott, La., population 7,800, living with his mother, Linda. His identical twin brother, Lonnie - older by one minute - continued his career unabated. Asmussen won more than 400 races last season. But Donnie Meche was banned and banished.

For a time, he galloped horses at a farm for trainer Nathan Broussard, but those horses were moved to the racetrack, and Meche was ruled off, unable to go with them.

After that, there was "nothing, nothing at all," Meche said. "I spent time with my little kids. There's not much to do over there. Sometimes we went fishing. I went out and rode the dirt bike sometimes."

He might have nursed his bitterness. The only thing Meche really knew how to do well - the only thing he wanted to do - had been taken. "That's all I did my life, ride horses," Meche said.

Donnie and Lonnie first began galloping at age 15, their mother, Linda Meche, said. "They both wanted it. Their dream was always to have a dead heat together in a big stakes race," she said.

Officially, the Meches' careers began in 1993. At first, Lonnie won more than Donnie. "They're not jealous of each other, but that was hard on Donnie," Linda said.

But until last year, Donnie Meche's career moved mainly forward. In 2001 he won 124 races and $4.9 million in purses. In 2002, he won 107 races and $4.7 million in purses. For Asmussen, he rode in the 2001 Kentucky Derby on Fifty Stars, on whom Meche had won the Louisiana Derby.

"Donnie Meche was as good a young rider as you could have had," said Chuck Del Preto, Meche's agent during his best years. "He reminded me of Jerry Bailey. He always gave his horses a chance. He got them in a position that if they could get there, they were going to get there."

But Del Preto concedes there was another side to doing business with Meche.

"He needed to be kicked in the ass once in awhile. You had to get after him. He wasn't the easiest one to get up in the morning," Del Preto said. "There were guys with better work habits. But it was acceptable. He wouldn't have lasted with Steve if it wasn't."

Indeed, Meche's career is joined at the hip to Asmussen. And that is somewhat strange, since they are such different people. Asmussen, the driven perfectionist who in recent years has ranked among the nation's leading trainers, cannot tolerate slack. Meche, until he gets up on a horse's back, seems to embrace it.

"I'm not going to lie - when he was late showing up to work, I lit into him," Asmussen said.

The cycle went round and round. Meche would displease Asmussen. Asmussen would yell and scream. And then Meche would go out and win a big race for the stable.

"I've had a ton of success with Donnie," Asmussen said. "I think a lot of it is that he knows how to deal with me. He comes back the next race and he acts like I didn't say anything to him."

The relationship comes across as more than slightly dysfunctional, and Meche gets a wrinkle in his voice talking about the demands Asmussen placed on him. But he also has this to say: "Thank God for Steve Asmussen."

As he idled in Scott, Meche's wife split up with him; she has since filed for divorce. And all the years' purse money grew scarcer and scarcer.

"Financially, it got tough," Meche said. "Steve was a good friend through it all. He and my brother helped me out when I needed it."

Said Asmussen, "Who the hell else does he know who has any money? Absolutely I helped him out. I've always been his friend. He sounded like they'd taken everything from him but his skin."

Waiting in Scott, Meche had plenty to ponder. He had made it as a jockey, but what did that mean? In the season before the Delta incident, Meche seemed to be in a downward spiral. During the summer of 2002, he was sanctioned by Woodbine racing officials and temporarily fired by Asmussen for kicking a horse after a stakes race at Woodbine.

In the tunnel connecting the paddock and the racetrack at Churchill Downs, Meche and Scott Blasi, Asmussen's top assistant, fought after a race. There also was a 30-day suspension for a positive drug test in the spring of 2003.

"Yeah, I feel like maybe I did take things for granted," Meche said. "I should have saved more money. When you start riding good horses, you start to think it's always going to get better and better."

Last month, when Meche drove onto a racetrack's grounds for the first time in more than a year, his shoulders lifted and his face lit up. "I was with him in the car," Linda Meche said, "and he said, 'Mom, I'm back on the track.' "

Meche went to Shreveport a few weeks ago to start preparing for his comeback. He moved in with Lonnie, the leading rider at Louisiana Downs. Richie Price, Lonnie's agent, will handle Donnie's business.

"I think everybody's wanting to give him a chance," Price said. "I think most people think he got a raw deal. He'll come back strong."

But Meche sounds less certain. He worries about keeping down his weight, which rose to more than 130 pounds during his time off. Lonnie is smaller and slighter, but it has been a battle for Donnie.

His first mount back is for Asmussen, but now Shane Sellers rides all the barn's top stock. At Louisiana Downs, Meche will line up behind several jockeys already riding for Asmussen. But somehow, one gets the feeling these two will team up again.

"The two biggest races I ever won, he was there," Asmussen said, referring to the 2002 Arkansas Derby, which he won with Private Emblem, and the victory by Fifty Stars in the Louisiana Derby. "When Fifty Stars won, the race was a train wreck, and he rode it like it was nothing. He can ride these big races for money. Whether we're lucky, or what - I'm influenced by that. I don't think it'd be hard to say that not everybody's blessed with that gift to show up when it counts."

The gift Meche has gotten this week is just to be able to show up.