06/07/2005 12:00AM

Castellano's career ascends

Watchmon, exercising Monday with Tony Bizelia, will be a longshot when he is ridden by Javier Castellano in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. - As the regular rider of Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, who won last year's Breeders' Cup Classic and most recently took the Metropolitan Mile, jockey Javier Castellano has been put through the pressure cooker the past year, and has come out of it with both his confidence and his stock on the rise.

Castellano, 27, was tabbed by Ghostzapper's trainer, Bobby Frankel, to ride the outstanding mare Sightseek in her career finale last fall, and trainer George Weaver took Castellano halfway around the world to ride Saratoga County to victory in the Dubai Golden Shaheen in March.

Earlier this year, Castellano won the Wood Memorial for trainer Nick Zito with Bellamy Road, who went off as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. The opportunities to compete in major races are coming his way with greater frequency these days.

"I'm lucky I'm riding that kind of horse," Castellano said Tuesday morning at Belmont Park. "I didn't see that kind of horse for a long time."

Saturday, Castellano will ride in the Belmont Stakes for the second straight year. Last year he was aboard the 40-1 shot Tap Dancer. This year he will be on Watchmon, who will be a high price as well. In the space of two weeks, Castellano will have gone from riding the best horse in the world in the Met Mile to a rank outsider in the 137th Belmont, but as far as he is concerned, when opportunity knocks, be sure to answer.

"I'm excited. I didn't think I was going to have a horse for the Belmont," Castellano said. "Hopefully we can get lucky. Four or five years ago, all the longshots were winning the Belmont. So you never know."

Castellano, who will ride Watchmon in a race for the first time on Saturday, took the horse for a test drive on Tuesday morning. They worked five furlongs in 1:00.09 on the training track while in company with Southern Bells, who was under a drive and still failed to stay on even terms with Watchmon, who was wearing a shadow roll and a bright yellow set of blinkers.

"He worked pretty good. He does it so easy," Castellano said. "I didn't want to go too fast, because the race is Saturday."

Watchmon, a dark gray colt by Maria's Mon, has won just once in six starts for trainer Pat Reynolds. He most recently finished second in a first-level allowance race at Belmont on May 22. In his lone stakes try, he was fourth in the Federico Tesio at Pimlico. His only victory came against maidens at Gulfstream Park in April. His owner, Paul Pompa Jr., purchased Watchmon as a yearling for $165,000.

"I hope he runs to his pedigree," said Pompa, the president of a truck distribution business in Brooklyn. "Pat's got him going the right way. Pat thinks he's coming to hand. It's worth taking a shot."

In Castellano, Pompa thinks he has "one of the best up-and-coming riders in the country."

Castellano is tied for sixth in the standings at Belmont Park this spring, but in terms of purse earnings, he is second to Edgar Prado.

"He wins big races," Pompa said. "And he's a great kid."

To be sure, Castellano's sunny demeanor, and that of his agent, Mike Kelly, have helped accelerate his progress. So has Castellano's willingness to improve both his skills as a rider and his fluency in English, of which he knew almost nothing when he arrived in this country from his native Venezuela.

"When I ride the favorite, there's pressure, but I have confidence in myself, so I'm excited," Castellano said. "I can see the difference. I have learned a lot. I'm still pretty young. I've learned a lot in the last seven or eight years.

"When you ride good horses, everybody is watching you. There's a lot of pressure. In the Breeders' Cup, we had the one post, it was a big field. I wanted to make sure Ghostzapper was in the clear the first part, because when he gets dirt in his face, he jumps around. It was my first Breeders' Cup, four million dollars. You are put on the spot, but you have to do your job."

In the paddock for that race, Frankel was so quiet that Castellano asked Frankel if he was okay.

"I'm fine," Frankel said.

"What do you want me to do?" Castellano asked.

"You know how to ride him," Frankel replied.

"He doesn't say much," Castellano said Tuesday. "But if you win," he added, revealing a truism every rider knows, "everybody's happy."

* Norberto Arroyo Jr. will ride the maiden Nolan's Cat, according to trainer Dale Romans.

* Patrick Biancone, the trainer of Chekhov, turned 53 on Tuesday.

- additional reporting by David Grening

Belmont contenders

Horses pointing for the 137th Belmont at Belmont Park on June 11.

Afleet AlexT. RitcheyJ. Rose1st, Preakness
Andromeda's HeroN. ZitoR. Bejarano8th, Ky. Derby
A.P. ArrowD. W. LukasJ. Bailey1st, CD maiden
ChekhovP. BianconeG. Stevens4th, Peter Pan
GiacomoJ. ShirreffsM. Smith3rd, Preakness
Indy StormN. ZitoE. Prado1st, Pim alw
Nolan's CatD. RomansN. Arroyo Jr.2nd, CD maiden
PinpointN. ZitoJ. Velazquez1st, Sir Barton
ReverberateS. RussoJ. Santos2nd, Peter Pan
Southern AfricaM. PuhichJ. Court1st, LS Derby
WatchmonP. ReynoldsJ. Castellano2nd, Bel alw.