06/11/2006 11:00PM

At 18, Jara's arrived and here to stay

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ELMONT, N.Y. - As a jockey in Panama, Fernando Jara earned the nickname "Ice Boy" for the fearless way he rode.

"His heart is cold, and his mind is strong," said Jorge Jara, Fernando's father, and a trainer in Panama.

Jorge Jara, 54, was one of 61,168 in attendance Saturday at blustery Belmont Park, where Jara put up a fearless and flawless ride in guiding Jazil to victory in the 138th Belmont Stakes. At age 18, Jara joined Steve Cauthen as one of the youngest riders to win the Belmont.

At the start of the Belmont, Jazil hit the side of the gate and Jara lost his right iron. In an instant, Jara took his right hand off Jazil's rein and put his foot back in the stirrup.

From there Jara guided Jazil to the rail and kept his horse in last, but in contact with the field for the opening half-mile. At the five-furlong marker, Jara guided Jazil between horses and by the five-sixteenths pole he was right on top of the leaders. His move to the outside of Bluegrass Cat forced jockey John Velazquez to ask his horse to run before he wanted, and Jara looked like a seasoned veteran as he switched sticks in the stretch en route to the victory.

"I see now why Kiaran McLaughlin had enough confidence to leave him on," said Jerry Bailey during ABC's live broadcast of the Belmont.

McLaughlin is the trainer of Jazil, who finished in a dead heat for fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Naturally, McLaughlin began fielding calls from agents of higher-profile riders than Jara to ride Jazil in the Belmont. But McLaughlin's owner, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum of Shadwell Stable, had already decided to stick with Jara.

"He fits the horse so well," said Rick Nichols, Shadwell's racing manager. "The horse responds to him so well. Sheikh Hamdan believes that when somebody's doing a good job, you don't try to fix it. We did discuss it with Sheikh Hamdan, and he said [Jara's] the man to ride him."

It was only three weeks ago that one of McLaughlin's owners, John Dillon, asked McLaughlin to find a more experienced rider to replace Jara for Like Now in the Preakness. Jara had ridden Like Now to victories in the Fred "Cappy" Capossela Stakes and the Gotham and put up a gritty ride when second to Showing Up in the Lexington. Like Now, under Garrett Gomez, finished seventh in the Preakness.

"He handled it very well," said Randy Romero, Jara's agent since February. "I told him it happens. I said in two years, you'll be taking everybody else off. It's just a matter of time."

Jorge Jara said his son - the second youngest of four children - was a judo champion at ages 10, 11, and 12. Jorge's father was a rider in Chile and saw the interest that Fernando had in becoming a jockey and helped him learn how to ride.

"When he was in Chile and he was a 10-year-old, he loved the horses," said Jorge Jara. "His grandfather was a jockey, rode in Peru, Argentina, Chile. He said, 'You will be a good jockey.' "

Jara began riding in Panama at 14. After he won 58 races, he came to the U.S. in January 2004 at the behest of Jose Rivera, a New York agent known for bringing young Panamanian riders here. Jara caught Romero's eye that summer at Saratoga, and Romero spent 1 1/2 years trying to get his book.

"I knew what talent he had. He was awesome," said Romero, who won 4,294 races during his riding career. "I came here this winter; I brought [apprentice] Randall Toups. I said, 'Fernando, let me take your book. I can help you. I can move you.' "

While Jara has never had a particularly big meet, he has won 142 races from 1,748 mounts in this country since 2004. Jara returned to Panama on Monday with his father because he has to serve a three-day riding suspension this week for an incident that occurred last Friday.

"I knew he would sometime win this race, but I wasn't certain when," said Jorge Jara. "He's a very good jockey. He's very professional, he's very serious."

Fernando Jara seemed a bit stunned at the magnitude of his

victory. Two races after he won the Belmont, Jara was in the winner's circle again, this time with the longshot winner Good Going Darl in a New York-bred maiden race.

Beginning to realize the significance of his Belmont win, Jara saw Gary Stevens on his way back to the jocks' room and just gave him a big hug.

"When I was a little kid, I see all the races, I see the jockeys, and I say, 'One day I want to be there,' and I'm here," Jara said.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman