01/08/2003 1:00AM

On set or horseback, he's a natural


ARCADIA, Calif. - Gary Stevens, budding method actor, apparently raised a few eyebrows on the "Seabiscuit" movie shoot by nailing a key scene with Chris Cooper in one take. Stevens plays jockey George Woolf, while Cooper plays Tom Smith, Seabiscuit's trainer, and they were talking strategy before a race.

"There was a guy I rode for, who probably respected me more than any jockey has been respected, and I felt the same way about him," Stevens said.

"Chris had that way about him. So I sat there and basically talked to Proc for five minutes."

It is impossible to guess what the late W.L. Proctor would think of Stevens and his new career in show business. Proctor was a no-nonsense trainer from the oldest of old schools, hardly one to be impressed by the movie world of make-believe.

Still, Proctor might have gotten a kick out of watching Stevens leap from horse racing to the silver screen, and there's a good chance he would have paid to see the movie. He also would expect Gary to be at the barn the next day at dawn to work a horse in the first set.

Stevens has been little more than a showbiz rumor around the racetrack for the past several months while the "Seabiscuit" production has criss-crossed the country. He was hoping to return to competition for real in mid-January, but now it looks more like mid-February before his commitment to the film will allow him the luxury of risking life and limb on horseback.

He has yet to shoot several scenes, including a night work aboard the movie version of Seabiscuit.

In the meantime, staying fit has been a challenge - and not just because the camera adds 10 pounds. Fortunately, the role of George Woolf has required plenty of time in the saddle.

"Actually, I've spent more hours on horses over the last 2 1/2 months than I have at any time since I was 18," Stevens said from his home in Sierra Madre, not far from Santa Anita Park.

"I've done a lot of weights, the dogs have been getting long walks, and the old friendly Equicizer has been getting a lot of work," Stevens said.

"Cardiovascular fitness has been the hardest for me, because there's only so much I can do without damaging my knees, and running is the worst thing for them."

Stevens has been riding professionally since he was 17. He turns 40 in March. In between he has won 4,691 races, three Kentucky Derbies and a place in the Hall of Fame. The price has been the health of his knees, which forced his temporary retirement in December of 1999 and sent him to the sidelines again in the fall of 2001 when yet another surgery was required.

His 2002 season ended on Breeders' Cup day at Arlington Park, after which his role in the "Seabiscuit" production required full-time dedication.

He was amazed to discover that acting stimulated the same juices as riding a Thoroughbred in the afternoon.

"It's the only other thing where I've found the same thrill, the same adrenaline rush, the same passion as I feel for racing," Stevens said.

"Believe me, the pressure is very real," he went on. "When I'm sitting there with Jeff Bridges, with a future icon like Tobey McGuire, or with a guy like Chris Cooper, who could win an Academy Award this year, on a movie with a budget of $110 million, I don't want to ever be the one who screws up. When the director gets that smile on his face, it's like winning a $200,000 race."

So how much of a stretch has it been, going from a full-time career as a jockey to the rookie on a major motion picture set?

"The joke I'd hear is that I've been acting for 20 years, and it's not that far off," Stevens said. "It's the nature of what jockeys have to do every day. If I go out to ride a race for Bob Baffert I'm going to have a totally different personality that I would riding for Wayne Lukas or Neil Drysdale.

"And let's say I've just gotten my butt chewed after riding a poor race for $200,000 and gotten beat a nose on a 3-5 shot. If I've got to come right back out and ride in a $500,000 race, I'd better be able to find a happy spirit and put on a face of confidence for the people I'm riding for. No matter what you're feeling, you've got to be able to hide it. That's acting."

Woolf died in a fall at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, 1946, at the age of 41. Stevens said he did his share of homework to learn the character.

"People who knew him tell me there are a lot of characteristics the same between the two of us, and a lot of parallels," Stevens said. "That's nice, but if it's okay I don't plan on checking out in a year and a half.

"I got a call from my mom a month or so ago," he went on. "She had just finished the "?Seabiscuit" book, and she was crying. '?Mom,' I said, 'what's the matter?' and she says, 'You don't die in this movie, do you?' "

Stevens was reassuring.

"No, Mom," he replied. "But if there's a sequel, I'm afraid I will."