04/25/2012 1:56PM

Belmont Park jockey colony extraordinarily deep

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Julien Leparoux is one of several accomplished riders who are switching to the New York circuit.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Races may not fill. The weather may not cooperate. A horse may get sick at an inopportune time.

Horsemen will face many of the same problems at Belmont Park they do everywhere else. One problem that trainers shouldn’t have during the 56-day spring/summer meet that begins Friday is finding a top-notch rider for their horse.

Once the Kentucky Derby is over, the Belmont jockey colony will be as deep as it’s ever been. Lured by high purses as well as a consistent five-day-a-week racing schedule, 12 of the 17 leading money earners this year are expected to ride here this meet.

Julien Leparoux, Rosie Napravnik, Corey Nakatani, and Junior Alvarado will be riding this meet for the first time. They join regulars such as Ramon Dominguez, the reigning three-time Belmont spring/summer champion, John Velazquez, a four-time Belmont spring/summer leading rider, Javier Castellano, Jose Lezcano, Eddie Castro and Cornelio Velasquez, coming off the Aqueduct spring meet title. Add in David Cohen, Rajiv Maragh, and Alex Solis and you have the deepest colony in the country.

“Over the last few years we had five or six top riders where now it looks we have about a dozen,” trainer Tom Albertrani said. “It just means you’re going to be happy with any one of them.”

Leparoux began his career in New York during the 2005 Saratoga meet. He set a Saratoga record for most wins by an apprentice with 28 in 2006 and won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding apprentice that year. He has spent the last five years in Kentucky, and will win the Keeneland title when that meet ends Friday.

Leparoux called Belmont “definitely the toughest meet” he will participate at. He feels that he and his agent Steve Bass made some inroads with New York trainers during the Gulfstream meet.

“Businesswise we got to work on it,” Leparoux said. “I’ve been working for trainers in Florida that are in New York too. I’m just very excited about trying to get something done in New York. I think it’s the right step for me to come back there now.”

Napravnik, who rode the Aqueduct winter meet in 2010, has won the last two riding titles at Fair Grounds. She has decided to come here rather than return to Delaware where she won the 2010 riding title and where she suffered her fifth significant injury last summer. Napravnik, who won 10 races in three weeks at Aqueduct, will be represented by Matt Muzikar, who also represents Castellano.

“I had offers to come last year, I didn’t really know if it was best for me at that time,” Napravnik said. “I got an offer to come to work with Matt this year and it was the right time. I felt like I was ready to come here. The money is astronomical.”

Castellano, the spring/summer meet runner-up the last two years, is the leading rider in the country in terms of purse money won and ranks second in wins. He rubbed his hands together enthusiastically when the topic of the competitive Belmont jockey colony was brought up to him.

“That keeps me motivated, I like competition,” Castellano said. “I like to win races with the top jockeys in the country.”

It appears that Castellano has received more mounts from trainer Todd Pletcher, business that used to go to John Velazquez. But Velazquez looks at that as an opportunity to branch out.

“I’m still there riding for Todd, but it opens the door for other people,” said Velazquez, who on Monday was named to the Hall of Fame. “It helps and it hurts at the same time.”

With the jockey colony so deep, some talented riders could struggle at the meet. Cornelio Velasquez, third in the Belmont spring/standings last year, is coming off his second consecutive Aqueduct spring title. But his agent, Bob Klesaris, knows that doesn’t mean anything beginning Friday.

“A lot of people don’t care about yesterday,” Klesaris said. “They care about tomorrow.”