06/11/2004 12:00AM

Stevens loves it over there

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When last we caught a glimpse of Gary Stevens, he was sliding off Rock Hard Ten after the May 15 Preakness and heading straight for the airport, hustling to get back to Paris for a big day of racing for the man who holds his contract, Andre Fabre.

History will record, in appropriate footnote, that Stevens managed to finish second in not one but three international classics that weekend. The day after finishing second to Smarty Jones in Baltimore, he was second in the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches aboard favored Grey Lilas, a daughter of Danehill, then took second money in a roughly run version of Poule d'Essai des Poulains aboard Diamond Green, a son of Green Desert.

American audiences are forgiven if they don't know a pouliche from a poulain (I believe it has something to do with pastry, or swimwear). It's enough to appreciate that these races are held in the same regard as their British counterparts - the 1000 and 2000 Guineas - and that they have been won by such everlasting all-stars as Daylami, Miesque, Allez France, Riverman, Three Troikas, Riverman, and Caro.

Stevens thought Grey Lilas had the right stuff to join that company, but she missed by 1 1/2 lengths. They will get another chance to win a French classic on Sunday at Chantilly race course, just north of Paris, when Stevens and his filly team for the Prix de Diane Hermes at 2,100 meters, or about 1 5/16 miles. The English-speaking world, stumped by what to do with "prix," calls it the French Oaks.

"She's special," Stevens said this week from his idyllic country residence, located not far from Chantilly. "She is as close to a feeling I used to have when I was riding Winning Colors. And this filly has an even bigger engine. People are questioning her staying ability - just like they did with Winning Colors - but I have no doubts. I'm looking forward to Sunday."

At the age of 41, with a Hall of Fame career set in stone and nothing left to prove, Stevens is living out a professional fantasy. Each racing day brings a new challenge over a different course with a unique scenario, light years removed from tedium of American oval racing on cookie-cutter dirt tracks.

On the morning of June 5, for instance, Stevens found himself aboard Grey Lilas on the course at Chantilly just after dawn in company with three stablemates, prepping for the Diane. The majestic palace and Royal Stables of Chantilly flank the backstraight of the course.

"Going in front of the chateau, breezing down that hill on the filly I'd be riding in the Diane - I mean, I was working her and I had goosebumps," Stevens said. "It doesn't get any better than that.

The universal language of horsemanship has taken Stevens only so far, and the challenge of riding Fabre's high-octane Thoroughbreds is very real.

"When you're training out in the middle of the forest like we do, the only human beings they see are the ones on their backs," Stevens said. "Then you take them to the races, and there's dogs barking, people walking across the racecourse - a whole new adventure."

And for real excitement, there is nothing in the United States that remotely resembles the French Tierce, which amounts to a national lottery attached to the results of a 20-horse stampede. Fabre advised Stevens to avoid the Tierce events, in which younger, less experienced riders try to make their reps. Then Fabre entered a horse in a Tierce with Stevens named.

"Did I upset you?" Stevens wondered. "Was it something I did?"

Thankfully, the rider made it back in one piece.

"Non-conclusive, eh?" Fabre said after the race.

"No, I think it was very conclusive," Stevens replied. "I knew I would get in trouble, because the horse wasn't fast enough to get where I wanted to go."

"Enough said," the trainer replied.

Last Sunday, Stevens rode in his first Prix du Jockey Club (a.k.a. the French Derby), also at Chantilly, finishing seventh of 15 after choosing to ride Reefscape over Valixir, both trained by Fabre. Valixir finished third, beaten less than a length.

"Andre gave me the choice, so I went with the colt I'd already won two races on, and who I knew could stay the distance, " Stevens said. "In fact, Andre gave me his 'hidden' opinion that favored Valixir. But it went right over my head. When I stood up after the finish I thought, 'Damn, he tried to tell me.' "

After the Prix de Diane on Sunday, Stevens will be heading to England's Royal Ascot meet - but only because he was able to secure a stay of a 20-day suspension handed down by Italian racing officials on May 30, when Stevens tried to scratch an unruly runner in a Group 3 sprint, then refused to ride. International havoc ensued.

"As far as I know, Italian racing has never granted a stay like this," Stevens said. "I'm getting worn out from the politics, though. And believe me, there has been a lot. I have thanked the Italian Jockey Club for allowing me an appeal. I'm also very glad to have the support of French and Italian jockeys. At the end of the day, when we're in that jockeys' room, there are no nationalities. There are only riders."