06/14/2001 11:00PM

At 16, Duarte's major is Monmouth

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Jorge Duarte Jr. is not like most other 16-year-olds. Instead of roaming the halls of a high school during the day, Duarte rides Thoroughbreds from 1 to 5 p.m. at Monmouth Park.

Duarte, a Colombia native, is riding as an apprentice at Monmouth, after beginning his career on Nov. 1. That day, he won in just his second start for trainer Alan Goldberg at Aqueduct. He eventually finished ninth in the Aqueduct jockey standings.

To watch Duarte ride is simply amazing. In the jockey's room, his 105-pound frame - he is the lightest jockey at Monmouth - is small even to his fellow riders. Yet out on the track, Duarte takes on accomplished jockeys with twice the age and experience. He has not shrunk from the challenge; he has three wins as of Thursday.

Duarte has lived in the United States for most of his life. His dad, Jorge Duarte Sr., also a jockey, rode in Florida much of the time. Jorge Jr. moved back to Colombia to attend school when he was a teenager, and soon after enrolled in jockey school. With the age limit for jockeys set at 14 in Colombia, Duarte began riding races early on, and then decided to take the big step of moving to the United States.

But the jump, as expected, has had its ups and downs, including the fact that you have to be 16 to obtain a jockey's license.

"They wouldn't let me on the racetracks when I first arrived," said Duarte, who carries a five-pound bug, "because I wasn't 16."

So Duarte worked for trainer Alan Goldberg a couple of times a week, exercising horses at Goldberg's Colts Neck Stables training farm. When he came of age to ride, he started at Aqueduct.

"He wasn't very strong when he started riding," Goldberg said. "But he had good hands and got along very well with all the horses."

Duarte, though, is ambivalent about his decision to start so early.

"I think I was too young to start riding," he said. "But I didn't want to wait. I figured I would keep going and working hard."

Duarte went to night school in New York City until the summer. He said that it's a possibility for him to attend school during the day in the fall, while riding at The Meadowlands during the evenings. For now, though, Duarte is on vacation, and can display his rapidly improving talent to the Monmouth crowd.

"I can feel the difference from when I started to now," said Duarte, who will lose his weight allowance in September. "The age will come; I don't ever give up."

On dirt, it's Tugger

If the weather forecast proves correct for Sunday, and the five-furlong $50,000 Klassy Briefcase Stakes for 11 fillies and mares is moved from the grass to the main track, the horse to beat is Tugger. A 4-year-old daughter of Ends Well, Tugger is

2 for 2 on an off track. Tugger, trained by Todd Pletcher, is a graded stakes-placed horse, and notched an optional claiming allowance win here June 3. Tugger, starting from post 1, will carry a high-weight of 117 pounds under jockey Jose Velez Jr.

The horses to challenge Tugger if the race switches to the dirt are Cedar Knolls and Curious Treasures. Cedar Knolls, trained by Jimmy Ryerson, is 2-2 at Monmouth the last two summers, and won here opening weekend in a money allowance that was run off the turf. Cedar Knolls, a 4-year-old, owned by Aliyuee Ben J. Stables, also won the Dearly Precious Stakes on the dirt here last summer. The Tim Hills-trained Curious Treasures showed an affinity for the turf before running at 29-1 odds in the Grade 3 First Lady Handicap on Jan. 14 at Gulfstream on the dirt. She finished second that day, and will be tough to beat on dirt or turf. Eibar Coa rides the filly from post 7.

Jersey-bred Elegant April, a

7-year-old trained by Tim Kelly, is a Monmouth veteran with a turf sprint win here last summer - the Blue Sparkler on Aug. 20. She breaks from the nine-hole with Carlos Cruz in the reins.

*The undercard stakes Sunday is the $30,000 Malouf Auto Group Starter Series #1 at one mile. The likely favorite is U.S. Gold, trained by Gary Contessa. He was an allowance winner here June 9, and finished third in an allowance on opening weekend. U.S. Gold, a

6-year-old gelding, will break from post 1 under Chuck Lopez.