12/23/2003 1:00AM

Castellano wins first title


While the king is away, one of Maryland's best young riders is making the most of the opportunity.

Abel Castellano Jr. has capitalized on the absence of Ramon Dominguez, who is on vacation, to capture the first riding title of his career.

With just four days of live racing remaining in Laurel Park's fall meet, Castellano holds an insurmountable 62-48 lead over Dominguez in wins.

"It is an awesome feeling," said Castellano, who rides first call for Michael Gill, the nation's leading owner. "I really didn't expect to win a title this soon in my career, but I have been fortunate to be able to ride a lot of good horses."

During the meet, Castellano, 20, has had 16 multiple-win days, including seven with at least three victories. A native of Venezuela and the younger brother of New York-based jockey Javier Castellano, Abel Castellano took the lead in the Laurel standings with five wins Oct. 18, a career best for one day.

"I am riding with so much confidence," Castellano said. "It seems like I know when to make the correct decisions and my confidence grows with each big day."

Castellano, who began riding professionally as a 16-year-old at Gulfstream Park, credits his brother Javier and Dominguez for assisting in his development as a rider.

"My brother is everything to me," said Abel Castellano. "He watches my races when he gets a chance, and we talk every day about ways for me to improve. I am living with Ramon right now and we spend a lot of time together, talking horses. Ramon and my brother are my role models."

In addition to riding in Florida, at Gulfstream and Calder, Castellano spent time at Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds, Keeneland, and Oaklawn before arriving at Pimlico in April. He ranks sixth in the overall Maryland standings with 116 first-place finishes.

Squan Song appears wide open

At least half of the 12 Maryland-bred fillies and mares entered in Saturday's Squan Song, a $50,000 stakes at seven furlongs, have sufficient credentials to win what looks like a very good betting race.

The list of contenders includes:

* Bamba, who returned from an eight-month layoff to lead until the final furlong of the seven-furlong Politely on Dec. 13. She has been first or second in 5 of 7 career starts at Laurel.

* Lexiloush, a New York invader who has been facing open allowance company. Two starts ago, the 4-year-old Lexiloush earned a career-best 94 Beyer Speed Figure when she won a first-level allowance at Belmont.

* Search for a Cure, who has four wins in eight starts at Laurel, including a decisive score three weeks ago against optional claimers in her first start since April.

* Darnestown, the runner-up as the favorite in last year's Squan Song, is winless in five starts this year and will be making her first start since May 31. Her Beyers in the six-furlong Primonetta (93) and seven-furlong Conniver (82), however, make her a serious threat in this field.

* Phyxius, although 1 for 22 the past two years, has earned some strong Beyers facing open stakes company at Mountaineer. She turned in two solid races against optional claimers early in the year at Laurel.

* The Fifth Element, a late runner who rallied to just miss going seven furlongs at Laurel three starts ago with an 88 Beyer. She hasn't raced in a month but has two bullet works, including a five-furlong move in 59.80 seconds on Dec. 20. She is trained by Tim Tullock, who excels with horses coming off short layoffs.

Irish Colony continues to win

Irish Colony, a 3-year-old gelding who was running for an $11,500 maiden claiming tag at Colonial Downs last summer, won for the fourth time at Laurel's fall meet, when he captured an optional claiming race Sunday. Trained by Ronald Cartwright, Irish Colony was entered for the $40,000 claiming price, but no one took him.

Irish Colony has now won six of his last eight races, all for jockey Eric Rodriguez, including the Maryland Million Starter Handicap.

Pino closing in on Dominguez

Mario Pino needs to win five races in the last four days of the season to pass Ramon Dominguez and become Maryland's leading rider for 2003. Dominguez, who took a well-earned vacation in mid-December, finished the year with 185 wins at Pimlico and Laurel. He has already clinched the state's title for best percentage by winning at a 25.6-percent clip.

One other category remains undecided. Tony Dutrow, Maryland's leading percentage trainer three of the last four years, holds a slim lead over Howard Wolfendale. Dutrow has won 48 of 163 starts (29.6 percent); Wolfendale has won 42 of 155 (27 percent).

Dale Capuano, with 98 victories, will finish as the state's leading trainer for the sixth time in the last seven years.

All four category winners receive a $2,500 bonus from the Maryland Jockey Club.

* Owner Michael Gill now has won 139 races in Maryland this year, including 45 during the current Laurel meet with four different trainers: Mark Shuman (23), Nick Canani (10), Phil Schoenthal (9), and Jerry Robb (3).

* Maryland-based jockey Greg Hutton, 41, won the 2,000th race of his career Sunday aboard Captain Chessie at Charles Town.