Jockey Jesse Davidson has had an eventful 16 years since he last won a major stakes race. He was convicted of race-fixing, sent to prison and barred from the sport, and had to fight a long battle to be reinstated.

But yesterday some of the pain and frustration was forgotten when he drove Southern Appeal to an upset victory in the $227,950 Laurel Futurity.

He rallied to win by a length over Papal Power, the highly regarded 2-year-old who had won Saratoga's Hopeful Stakes. Miracle Wood finished third.

Davidson's career had nose-dived since the mid-1960s. He was the United States' top race-winning rider in 1965, and that achievement enabled him to leave Charles Town and get a taste of the big time. He rode Shuvee to a sweep of New York's triple crown series for fillies in 1969.

Five years later, however, he was implicated in the infamous triple race on St. Valentine's Day at Bowie, and his career was virtually ended. He was reduced to riding at unrecognized tracks in Montana while he petitioned the Maryland Racing Commission for reinstatement. After a succession of rejections, he finally got his license back last winter.

"I worked harder than I ever did before," Davidson said. "I know I don't have many years left."

Davidson got support from some trainers who remembered him from his heyday. One of them was Marvin Moncrief, the trainer of Southern Appeal.

"Jesse rode for me at Charles Town when I was starting out," Moncrief said. "This winter, he started coming around the barn. He's an honest guy. I've never had any doubts about him at any time. He's paid for his mistakes."

Moncrief started using Davidson as his jockey about two months ago. Neither of them could have imagined that Southern Appeal was going to give each of them one of his greatest racing triumphs. In six starts before yesterday, the colt had managed to win only a maiden race. But he had trained superbly since his last start -- five eighths of a mile in :58 4/5, a mile in 1:40 1/5 -- and today the futurity developed perfectly for him.

Papal Power and Miracle Wood went out to battle for the early lead, and they raced head and head down the backstretch, covering the half mile in 47 1/5 seconds. Sitting third behind them, in perfect striking position, was Southern Appeal.

The two leaders were abreast of each other as they turned for home, but they were starting to weaken as Davidson made his move on the outside. He caught Papal Power in midstretch and went on to cover the 1 1/16 miles in a respectable 1:44 1/5.

Southern Appeal earned $130,770 for owner Howard Bender of Bethesda and paid $27.60 to his backers in the crowd of 11,108.

Moncrief said Southern Appeal might run next against the country's top 2-year-olds in the Breeders' Cup. "Up until today," he said, "that was a dream. But we'll have to give a lot of thought to it now."

If that is Southern Appeal's next start, Davidson won't be with them. He isn't licensed to ride in New York.