05/12/2004 12:00AM

Weekend on continental plan


BALTIMORE - Gary Stevens, racing's American in Paris, can't remember the last time he missed the Kentucky Derby, either as a participant, as a young rider on the sidelines, or as a kid in a household filled with horse lore. That's because he never has.

For Stevens, Derby Day is a national holiday, an event so dear to his heart that the mere mention of the race brings a lump to his throat, closely followed by a reverent monologue. Winning three Derbies will do that to you.

It was a highly frustrated Gary Stevens, therefore, who spent the evening of May 1 searching his French satellite network in vain for a live telecast of the Kentucky Derby before finally giving up and calling a friend in L.A., who was kind enough to crank up the TV volume and hold the telephone close enough for Stevens to get the general idea.

The time was just past midnight in the quiet, horsey community of Chantilly, just north of Paris, when Smarty Jones did his Derby number to set the American racing world on fire. Even far removed from the reality he had so often shared - riding these days under contract to French legend Andre Fabre - Stevens got chills as he listened to the Derby call from Churchill Downs.

"You could tell it was a two-horse race from the three-eighths pole," Stevens said from his French residence late last Sunday evening. "I was rooting big-time for Mike" - his close friend Mike Smith on runner-up Lion Heart - "but later, when I finally caught the race on my computer, I saw there was nothing he could have done. Stewart Elliott rode a cool race on the winner, ice cold, like he'd already ridden in 20 million-dollar races and didn't give a damn."

Stevens will be carrying those Derby images with him this week as he makes a special Stateside trip to Baltimore for the Preakness mount on the massive Rock Hard Ten. So far, the colt is a celebrity without portfolio. He has just three lifetime starts and one lonely stakes appearance, when he finished second in the Santa Anita Derby, only to be disqualified to third after a rookie mistake deep in the stretch that cost him a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

Stevens knows the colt well from last winter at Santa Anita and was instrumental, along with former rider Corey Black, in teaching Rock Hard Ten the ropes. Trainer Jason Orman, in the spotlight for the first time, has been wise to heed their counsel.

"I told Jason not to make the mistake of thinking this horse needs to rate," Stevens said. "Let him find his stride and settle into it, then ride your race from there on in. With him, it's best to stick to the old Bill Shoemaker rule: Just stay out of their way. If you can do that with this colt, you'll get the job done.

"The only thing my colt is lacking is experience," he added. "And, really, I don't think it will matter. I mean, he's either good enough or he's not."

The same goes for an American Hall of Famer who finds himself, at the age of 40, competing in a brand-new arena.

"It's been one of the hardest places for me to adjust to," Stevens said of his French campaign. "Part of it was because I got caught up in the French way of thinking, the idea that it is so different here than anywhere else. Well, it's not that much different. All I've really needed to learn is the differences in each racecourse."

As the Fabre stable begins to roll out its best runners, Stevens appears to have caught his stride. He commenced his French adventure on Monday, March 29, two days after riding Polish Summer to victory in the Dubai Sheema Classic for Fabre. Through Tuesday, he has won 17 races, with 21 placings. He has had four multiple-winner days, and victories at each of the major courses - Longchamp, Saint-Cloud, Maisons-Laffitte, and Chantilly. Eight of those wins have come since May 4.

"For the first month, I tended to ride on the timid side," Stevens said. "Now I'm being the initiator. I've gone on offense."

Stevens did not intend to offend, however, when he wore breeches displaying the French and American flags while riding Polish Summer in the Group 1 Prix Ganay on May 2.

"I hadn't worn the pants for a couple of weeks," Stevens said. "And I was not aware of a rule that did not allow the display of emblems in Group 1 and Group 2 races. After the race, an official told me, very harshly, that I will no longer wear those pants. Well, you know my temper."

Yes, and it's a good thing Stevens is not yet fluent in French, otherwise the last six months of sensitive Franco-American diplomacy would have gone up in smoke. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and Stevens received an apology, along with a promise to examine the "no flag" rule.

"I wasn't making any kind of political statement," said Stevens, whose son-in-law serves with the U.S. Army in Iraq. "It was more a gesture of reconciliation. As an American riding in France, I wanted to say that I liked their public, and hopefully their public likes our public, all politics aside."

Win or lose with Rock Hard Ten on Saturday, Stevens will be on a plane that night, headed back to Paris to ride a Fabre filly on Sunday at Longchamp in the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, also known as the French 1000 Guineas. Whether he can collect a transatlantic classic double remains to be seen.

"Look, I was impressed with the Derby winner," Stevens said. "Very impressed. I won't be going to Baltimore thinking we're going to annihilate anyone, that's for sure. In order to win, I think we'll have to be on top of our game. And even that might not be enough, unless Smarty Jones has some real bad luck."