08/23/2002 12:00AM

This time, Stevens will watch


DEL MAR, Calif. - We've grown accustomed to the look. Sunglasses, baggy shirt, and three days worth of whiskers topped by unruly hair poking out from the edges of a ball cap bearing some hip, enigmatic logo. It's a movie star, of course, wearing his carefully prepared scruffy look, trying hard to hide the fact that he is really Matt Damon or Leo DiCaprio.

Right now Gary Stevens could pass for one of those slumming superstars. As he sits on the sidelines, awaiting recovery from his latest knee troubles, Stevens has been entertainingly diverted by his pending role as George Woolf in the movie version of Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit," to be directed by Gary Ross.

"When Gary saw me at Hollywood Park - it was the day Chris McCarron retired - he asked me not to cut my hair until we start the movie," Stevens said this week from his Del Mar condo. "I said that was great. I get to look like a movie star bum."

Between his occasional pre-production meetings for "Seabiscuit" and his daily sessions of rehabilitation, Stevens hasn't had time to sit around pining about his bum right knee. He tested his condition Friday morning aboard horses for Bruce Jackson and Dean Greenman, but there is no timetable set for a return.

Still, there might be a twinge on Sunday when Stevens must watch from the grandstand as 14 of his colleagues parade to the post for the

$1 million Pacific Classic. He may feel like the only guy in town without a mount.

Stevens won the Classic for the first time in 1993 with Bertrando, then again in 1997 with Gentlemen. Both experiences left lasting memories.

"Gentlemen ran like a 1-2 shot should, but he didn't feel that way," Stevens said. The margin was 2 3/4 lengths over Siphon.

"He didn't handle the track, and he still got the job done," Stevens went on. "At 1-2, you expect to have just a steer job. With him, I had to hope that nobody put us under pressure early, because I was just holding him together."

Bertrando was the other side of the coin. Del Mar was his favorite track and it showed. He led all the way in the '93 Classic to win by three.

"It was pretty much a slam dunk," Stevens said. "I galloped him around to the quarter pole, then he rebroke. That's a great feeling in a million-dollar race."

There will be no galloping around on Sunday. The field of 14 assures a fascinating race, fraught with contradictory scenarios. Stevens sees it this way:

"The race looks pretty well divided among horses with different styles of running," he began. "I'd imagine there's going to be a pretty hot pace, because position for the front-runners is going to be important. Some of the outside speed could possibly be packed wide.

"Some of the riders on midpack horses could face the same dilemma. If they want to save ground going into that first turn, they may have to give up some lengths to drop in. If they're on a horse that can't handle the dirt kicked back in their face, they might want to give up the ground and go wide."

For a rider like Stevens, with a Hall of Fame plaque and 23 years of experience, the size of the Classic field is not intimidating. Just the opposite, in fact.

"A 14-horse field makes it more exciting," Stevens said. "It gives a lot more people the chance to feel involved. And in some ways it can make for a fairer race. I'd much rather ride an 8-5 shot in a 14-horse field than a four-horse field. In a real small field, it's hard to hide."

With Stevens reduced to spectator on Sunday, he will be expected to participate at the windows. How will he play it?

"I like Sky Jack because he's such a warrior," Stevens said. "He looks to me like the type of horse Bertrando was. They're not necessarily a mile- and-a-quarter horses, and they like to run towards the front. But they're not speed crazy.

"War Emblem, on the other hand, might be just a stone-cold front-runner. If he gets pressure on the lead - and it looks like he will - I think he might be a run-off."

Then Stevens stopped thinking with his head and wished with his heart. He still remembers the feel of Grey Memo beneath him in March in Dubai.

That is when they collaborated for the first and only time and came away with the $1 million Godolphin Mile on the World Cup undercard for trainer Warren Stute, who, at the age of 81, is having a career season. In his most recent race, Grey Memo and Eddie Delahoussaye took the San Diego Handicap by three.

"I'd love to see Grey Memo coming from about 20 lengths out of it and just swoop 'em," Stevens said. "It might just set up great for him. And who knows? With the year Warren is having, it just might happen."