01/27/2004 1:00AM

Castro lets deeds do his talking

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The country that has given Laffit Pincay Jr. and a host of other highly successful jockeys to North American racing has another name on that honor roll: Eddie Castro.

Castro, a native of Panama, was an easy winner of the 2003 Eclipse Award for top apprentice rider after his mounts won 242 races and earned more than $3.93 million.

Castro, 18, came to south Florida in April. After leaving Panama's prestigious riding school, he had ridden professionally for just a few months in his homeland, where he quickly became the leading apprentice, before deciding to leave.

"I knew to further my career, it would be best to come over here," Castro said in October. When he left Panama for the U.S., Castro chose riding racehorses over a possible career as an electrician in his homeland. He had been attending night school.

Castro won two races from six mounts at the end of the 2003 Gulfstream Park meet, then caught on quickly when Calder began its seven months of racing. At one point, he won 19 races during a five-day span, including two five-win days. He finished as Calder's second-leading rider when the meet ended Jan. 2.

Castro's backers say his strengths are his patience and an ability to finish strongly. Castro said his agent, Mike Gonzalez, and fellow jockey Cornelio Velasquez, also from Panama, have been highly instrumental in his success.

Castro, who speaks very little English, said through Gonzalez that he intends to remain on the south Florida circuit for the foreseeable future. He lost his apprenticeship in December and has mostly struggled during the opening month of the 2004 Gulfstream meet.

In the Eclipse voting, Castro attracted 147 of a possible 248 first-place votes. Ryan Fogelsonger, the 2002 Eclipse winner whose apprenticeship was split almost evenly between 2002 and 2003, finished second in the 2003 voting with 52 votes. Pablo Fragoso, who rode primarily in New York and whose mounts earned almost $3.99 million, slightly more than Castro's total, was the third finalist and finished a distant third with 12 votes.

Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey introduced the finalists for the award by saying: "They're all great riders, believe me. I've watched them all real closely."

Besides Pincay, the all-time leading jockey in North American racing history with 9,530 wins, other Panamanian jockeys to have ridden with great success in the U.S. include Braulio Baeza, Rene Douglas, Alex Solis, Jacinto Vasquez, and Jorge Velasquez.