07/25/2003 12:00AM

Stevens straddling sport and art worlds

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DEL MAR, Calif. - "Seabiscuit" opened on two screens Friday at the Flower Hill Mall in Del Mar, just east of Interstate 5 on Via de la Valle. The fifth showing of the day was at 4 p.m., right when the first race of the day at Del Mar racetrack was being run a few furlongs to the west. In that vortex, the two worlds of Gary Stevens were colliding. You could see the celluloid Stevens on the screen, or see Stevens himself riding at Del Mar.

Stevens has straddled the worlds of racing and moviemaking for the better part of a year now. He plays the part of George Woolf in "Seabiscuit," and has received favorable reviews from film critics for his maiden voyage. It has been a whirlwind ride for the 40-year-old jockey, but the pace of his life was exhausting in the past week.

He flew to New York for a roundtable discussion on the Charlie Rose show. He came back to California, then hopped a plane to his boyhood home of Boise, Idaho, for a screening there. He came back to California, then immediately flew to Washington, D.C., for a private screening at the White House on Monday with President Bush. Then back to Los Angeles for the movie's official premiere. And on the seventh day, Thursday, he didn't rest. He rode, at Del Mar.

"It felt nice today," Stevens said after his final mount on Thursday's card. "It was great to get on the back of a horse and have my own private time. Believe me, I'm not complaining about everything that has gone on. But it was nice to have time to myself.

"One of the reasons I rode today is that I've broken a lot of commitments. But you don't get invited to the White House every day. I won three Kentucky Derbies and never got invited to the White House. Now I do a film, that's not even out yet, and I get invited. It's amazing."

It was one year ago when Stevens first was in negotiations for the part of Woolf. He and Gary Ross, who wrote and directed "Seabiscuit," were reminiscing on how much their lives had changed in the past 12 months when they were standing in the White House earlier this week.

"A year ago I was wondering if I was doing the right thing, and then here we were in the White House," Stevens said. He said the experience was humbling.

"The president was very friendly. I spent a good 10 minutes talking to him by myself," Stevens said. "I'm a big Bush fan anyway. A lot of people are trying to second-guess him every time something happens. But he seemed like a guy who's very much in control. It was an honor to get to spend time with him."

The premiere, by contrast, was "crazy," Stevens said.

"The after-party was pretty special, too," said Stevens, who brought along his jockey agent, Craig O'Bryan. "Craig looked over at me and said, 'This is pretty wild, jock.' Craig has been great throughout all this. He's the most unselfish human being I know."

Stevens said he wants to continue to keep his hand in racing even as his acting career blossoms. He said he has received preliminary offers to work on three other films, and is shooting a pilot for a television show that Ross is directing.

"I won't be announcing any retirements," Stevens said. "I want to do what I did this past year, take an extended vacation from racing, but still ride. It's worked out well this year. I ended up on the Santa Anita Derby winner, and I'm riding horses like Storming Home and Candy Ride and Solar Echo and Santa Catarina. It's been a pretty wild ride. I'm still interested in riding, and I'm still sharp.

"It's funny. I didn't want to do the movie in the first place. And then I thought it would be a one-shot deal," Stevens said. "Halfway through the movie, I was telling Gary Ross and the producers, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, that I'd like to do more of this. They kept saying, 'Be careful what you wish for.' "

Stevens has several scenes in "Seabiscuit." He makes a grand entrance in his first scene, when he strides into the jockeys' room, delivering his lines with the natural confidence he has in real life.

"Legendary jockey Gary Stevens . . . is so charismatic and authentic he almost steals the movie," said a review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The Denver Post opined, "The real find of the film is Gary Stevens as George Woolf, the famous jockey who steps in at a crucial moment for his friend Pollard. This is the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame jockey's acting debut. And every scene he's in, he rides with a confident, eye-catching ease."

Stevens said he was more concerned with a far harsher group of critics.

"My biggest concern was the critics in our business," Stevens said. "The trainers. The owners. When I got their approval, which was my main goal, that meant everything."