04/09/2004 11:00PM

Castillo has come into his own

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - Eight years ago, a young apprentice named Oliver Castillo began his riding career at Tampa Bay Downs. Richard Depass, Castillo's agent at the time, heavily touted the young rider as the next "Willie" - as in Willie Martinez.

Depass, a former rider, had been Martinez's agent when Martinez was leading rider here in 1991-92, with a record 123 wins.

Castillo had a difficult time in his early days, however, struggling to gain badly needed experience and find his own identity and riding style. Castillo won his first race here, but many observers wondered just how much of a future the native of Santiago, Chile, would have.

Fast-forward eight years. The inexperienced and confused youngster is gone, replaced by a polished veteran. Castillo is a solid professional who sits a horse well, rides with his back flat - reminiscent of the classic riders of the 1950's, 60's, and 70's - and has control of his mounts at all times. His hands are snug on the reins, and they move only to give well-timed and subtle signals.

In short, Castillo has emerged as his own man and his own rider. Through April 9, Castillo ranked fifth among local riders with 43 wins, no easy feat for a jockey riding regularly here for the first time in many years. He has made his mark this season, and admits that it took a while for the current version of Oliver Castillo, race rider, to emerge.

"It was tough at first finding a niche, working on my riding, listening, and learning what worked for me," Castillo said. "I think I had so many people trying to help me out, trying to show me the ropes, that I kind of got overwhelmed.

"But I think I've matured, gotten more confidence in myself as time's gone on," he said, "and right now I'm pretty pleased with the way I'm riding and how the career is going."

Last summer and fall, Castillo rode at Delaware Park, winding up fifth behind national wins leader Ramon Dominguez while his mounts earned more then $2.3 million in purses. Castillo will ride here through April 14 before heading north to Stanton, Del., but he promises he'll return.

"I'll be back," Castillo said. "Working horses when the temperature's 70 is a lot easier than working them when the wind chill's 20 below."

Purses raised to record level

In spite of being prohibited from receiving or betting on races at Magna tracks, business at Tampa is booming this season, prompting the track to raise purses to a record level.

As of April 3, purses were raised 5 percent, bringing the average daily purses to a record $133,500 and eclipsing last year's average of $128,000. The boost was possible because of a daily increase of about $640,000 in Tampa's all-sources wagering average, to $3.1 million per day. Ontrack live handle is up 23 percent, while attendance is up 13 percent.