10/09/2002 11:00PM

Stevens is ready for his close-up

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Gary Stevens is used to springing into action when he hears "Riders, up." Now, you can add, "Lights, camera, action."

The Hall of Fame jockey has landed a prominent role in the movie "Seabiscuit," based on the best-selling book. Shooting begins next week at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif. - which is doubling for Caliente racetrack in Tijuana - and Stevens will join the production the following week. Instead of having to match wits on the racetrack with Kent Desormeaux and Laffit Pincay Jr., he will be sharing screen time with the likes of actors Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges, the stars of the film.

The producers of the film say that Stevens, who will play the jockey George Woolf, will be one of the featured players. This is not a one-shot, vanity cameo. Nor do the producers think it is a gamble.

"When he came in and read for the part, he was fantastic," said Allison Thomas, the executive producer of the film, which is being produced by Universal Studios. "People had tears in their eyes. We had him read a very emotional scene, one where George Woolf is trying to convince Charles Howard to ride Red Pollard after Pollard was injured. He bowled everyone over."

How long after that was he hired?

"Right then," Thomas said.

"I'm really excited about it," Stevens said. He already has met Maguire, who will play Pollard, and described the actor as "real friendly."

"He's very humble," Stevens said. "He struck me like a little brother."

Maguire has spent time at Del Mar and Santa Anita in recent weeks, accompanied by former jockey Chris McCarron, who is an advisor on the film with his wife, Judy.

Stevens's discovery wasn't quite as serendipitous as Lana Turner's in Schwab's coffee shop, but it was, in part, by chance. Several of the producers of the film, including Gary Ross, the screenwriter and director, attended this year's Kentucky Derby. According to Thomas, they met the 39-year-old Stevens at a dinner that week, and were struck by how closely Stevens resembles Woolf in appearance. "He's a really good-looking guy. He looks like Woolf. And he's the right age," Thomas said.

"From what I gather, it had to do as much with Woolf's personality as his looks, if you catch my drift," Stevens said, laughing, referring to his occasionally prickly personality.

Ross, a racing fan, was the most eager to get Stevens, believing from the start that the jockey would have the acting chops to pull this off. "Gary Ross was always totally confident Gary Stevens could do this," Thomas said. "Gary Stevens is a personable guy. We've found the jockeys to be very outgoing. I mean, part of their job is, 'Hire me to ride your horse.' "

A few weeks after the Derby, Stevens came in and read for his part, in front of a handful of people, including Thomas and casting director Debra Zane.

"He was amazing," said Thomas, who also was a co-producer on the film "Pleasantville."

Stevens said he had "never even thought about" acting until this opportunity arose.

"It's a tough business," he said. "I have friends who have attempted to break in, and it's hard. It wasn't something I was looking for. It just happened. When they first asked if I was interested, I thought they were kidding."

In preparation for the role, Stevens last month spent some time with Larry Moss, one of Hollywood's best-known acting coaches. "Larry sent Gary home early," Thomas said. "He said if you want to do something other than be a jockey, you can do this.

"Not everyone can do this. It's a pivotal character," Thomas continued. "He's in the beginning of the movie, the middle of the movie, and the end of the movie. It's a big commitment."

The producers, however, are going to work around Stevens's schedule. For instance, even though Stevens needs to be on the set at Fairplex on Oct. 21, he will have the following weekend off in order to honor commitments in the Breeders' Cup races at Arlington Park. And he will continue with his riding career.

"We've factored all of that in," Thomas said.