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Stevens to Ride in France

Times Staff Writer

Jockey Gary Stevens, who in the past has spent some time riding in Europe, is reportedly headed to France later this year.

The European Bloodstock News reported that Stevens, who will turn 41 on March 6, has signed a contract to be the stable rider for Andre Fabre, one of the top trainers in Europe.

“I would have to have my head examined to turn this down,” Stevens was quoted as saying. “It is for me, at the age of 40, the opportunity of a lifetime. I love change. I got my education through racing and I got my education through travel rather than by going to school.”

Stevens, who is in Houston this week doing promotional work for the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn., rode two months in Europe in 1999 for trainer Sir Michael Stoute and he earned his first Breeders’ Cup victory for Fabre on In The Wings in the 1990 Turf.

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As expected, Santa Anita has announced that it would cut purses beginning Saturday because of declines in off-track and out-of-state betting revenue.

Overnight races will be reduced about 6.5% and purses for 10 stakes races will be cut either $25,000 or $50,000.

Chris McCarron, Santa Anita’s vice-president and general manager, said track attendance was up 1% and on-site handle down only 2%, but off-track handle was off 7% from last year and out-of-state handle was off 17%.

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Pleasantly Perfect, the longshot winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Congaree, who was fourth in the Classic, will meet again Saturday in the $250,000 San Antonio Handicap. The 1 1/8-mile race is the last major prep for the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.

There had been discussion that Congaree might make his 2004 debut in the $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 7, but trainer Bob Baffert and owner Bob McNair decided to stay in California. Congaree will carry 124 pounds, three more than Pleasantly Perfect.

“I wasn’t very happy with the weights,” Baffert said, “but we don’t have much choice. For some reason they just keep weighting ... Congaree. He’s running a mile and an eighth early in the year, so if he wins, what does he do in the Big ‘Cap? Last year he had to give Milwaukee Brew five pounds [124-119].”

Milwaukee Brew beat Congaree by a head to win the Santa Anita Handicap last year.

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Jockey Patrick Valenzuela has yet to contact Santa Anita stewards Ingrid Fermin, Pete Pedersen and Tom Ward.

The stewards suspended him indefinitely last week after he failed to show up to take a drug test. Valenzuela, who led all five major meetings on this circuit in 2003, hasn’t ridden since Jan. 19.

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