05/31/2004 12:00AM

Stevens to fight Italian ban

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Jockey Gary Stevens said that he plans to appeal a 20-day suspension he received from Italian racing officials Sunday for failing to ride a horse he felt should have been scratched.

Stevens said if the appeal is not granted, he may cut short his one-year contract to ride first-string for top French trainer Andre Fabre.

Sunday, on the Italian Derby program at Capannelle racecourse in Rome, Stevens was booked to ride Sopran Foldan for trainer Bruno Grizzetti in the Group 3 Premio Tudini over six furlongs on turf.

In a phone interview Sunday, Stevens said Sopran Foldan behaved erratically all the way to the starting gate. Stevens said Sopran Foldan began to bleed from the mouth before the start.

Stevens said that he suggested that the horse be scratched, but was replaced by another rider, Silvano Mulas. Sopran Foldan finished 14th of 16.

"I was trying to scratch the horse, and they wanted to run," he said in a phone interview. "This horse should never have run. His mouth was bleeding.

"This is prehistoric, what the jockeys go through in Italy. I'm a jockey, not a gladiator."

The suspension is scheduled to start on June 7 and would prevent Stevens from riding at Royal Ascot from June 15 to 19. If the other European Union countries uphold the Italian suspension, said Stevens, "I don't need to be here."

Stevens said he pulled muscles in his back trying to restrain Sopran Foldan on the way to the gate. He rode at Saint-Cloud in France on Monday, winning the Prix de Pontarme Stakes on Art Master for Fabre.

Stevens has been based in France since late March.