05/28/2003 11:00PM

Meche making grade


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Lonnie Meche has held fond memories of Churchill Downs ever since the Cajun-born jockey, then 22, rode Blushing K.D. to win the 123rd Kentucky Oaks in 1997, making for what he still calls an "unbelievable" experience.

Last weekend, more than six years after the victory that remains the greatest of a 10-year riding career, Meche made more Churchill memories for himself. He rode Kiss the Devil to win the Mint Julep Handicap Saturday, then guided Cuvee to an easy triumph in the Kentucky Breeders' Cup Stakes two days later.

"You come out here in the mornings, and everybody's congratulating you, making you feel real good about it," Meche said. "It's overwhelming."

Meche, 28, has developed into a reliable journeyman, the kind of jockey who is not a household name outside of wherever he is riding at the time, but one who nevertheless finds the winner's circle frequently. Since his Oaks win, Meche has racked up several other noteworthy accomplishments, including riding titles at Louisiana Downs (1997) and Fair Grounds (2000-01), and a 2001 Super Derby win on Outofthebox.

Since the Churchill meet began April 26, Meche has been riding frequently for trainer Steve Asmussen, whose stable tends to provide a major boost to virtually any jockey's business. Asmussen is the trainer of Cuvee and several more of Meche's winners at Churchill, where, into the Thursday card, Meche had won with 14 of 91 mounts.

Under normal circumstances, Meche's twin brother, Donnie, rides first call for Asmussen, but Donnie recently began serving a one-year suspension stemming from a controversial incident in January at Delta Downs. The Louisiana Racing Commission cited Donnie Meche for "not persisting" with his mount in a futurity trial at Delta; the jockey is fighting the penalty through the state's appeals courts.

"He's really frustrated by it all," said Lonnie Meche. "He's just hanging around home here in Louisville, bored out of his mind. He'd love to get all this behind him."

When the Churchill meet ends July 6, Lonnie Meche said he likely will ride regularly for the first time in years at Louisiana Downs, where racing again is on the upswing because of the recent installation of some 900 video slot machines at the track. He plans to return to Kentucky, where he and his family have a home, for the Keeneland meet in October.

In recent years, virtually all of the Churchill jockeys left to ride at Saratoga, Arlington, or Ellis Park for the balance of the summer. Meche said that, before the arrival of slots, returning to Louisiana Downs would not have been prudent, but he probably will return this year for several reasons - the new revenue source, Asmussen's sizable string there, and Meche's longstanding ties with Louisiana and Texas horsemen from his earlier years.

"Hopefully we'll do good there," he said. "Then it'll be time to come home. This is home now. My family likes it, and I like it. We're going to try to keep things going."

Walden seeks another Louisville

During the mid-1990's, Elliott Walden pretty much owned the Louisville Handicap. Walden was the winning trainer of the Louisville - which will be run Saturday at Churchill for the 66th time - in 1994 with L'Hermine, in 1995 with Lindon Lime, and in 1996 with Nash Terrace.

Walden said he has run "maybe a couple horses" in the Louisville since then, but none gave him a fourth victory. Saturday, he will send out Quest Star, a recent winner over the Churchill turf course, who will carry the colors of Frank Mansell in the 1 3/8-mile turf race.

Quest Star is "as genuine as they come," Walden said Thursday from Arlington Park, where he has a string of runners. "They'll have to run to beat him, I know that."

Ipi Tombe, the international superstar who came into Walden's care about two months ago, had another workout Thursday, breezing a half-mile in 49 seconds over a fast Churchill main track. The Aug. 16 Beverly D. at Arlington remains the mare's next main goal. "Ideally, I'd like to get one race into her before that," Walden said.

Awesome Humor, fourth in her recent comeback race, remains a possibility for the June 6 Acorn at Belmont. "We've got a spot on the plane" that leaves Louisville for New York Wednesday, Walden said. "She's training good, so we'll play it by ear."