11/20/2003 1:00AM

Castro takes the lead in race for apprentice jockey Eclipse


MIAMI - Three weeks ago Eddie Castro Jr. was in the thick of a four-way battle among the nation's apprentice riders in both wins and money earned. But after winning a staggering 33 races since the opening of the Tropical at Calder meeting on Breeders' Cup Day, Castro has become the clear-cut favorite to become the 2003 Eclipse Award winner in the apprentice jockey division.

Castro, 18, entered Thursday's program with a 33-18 lead over three-time Tropical at Calder riding champion Eibar Coa in the race for the 2003-04 title. The fast start has put him in commanding position to become the first apprentice to win the Tropical riding title since Rosemary Homeister Jr. in 1992. Homeister was ultimately awarded the Eclipse as the nation's premier apprentice rider that year.

Castro began his career in his native Panama and did not accept his first U.S. mount until the middle of April. Despite the late start, Castro had won 196 races through Wednesday, and his mounts had amassed earnings of more than $3.1 million. His closest pursuers in those categories among apprentice riders nationwide are Oscar Flores (163 wins, $2 million in earnings), Luis Garcia (160, $2.2 million), and Richard Monterrey (154, $2.6 million).

Defending Eclipse Award winner Ryan Fogelsonger, who did not lose his bug until May, and John McKee, who lost his apprentice allowance on June 5, are also eligible for the 2004 title.

"I'd love to get the award, and I'm going to continue to work hard for it," said Castro, shortly after winning his second race on Thursday's program. "But for now I'll leave it in God's hands."

Castro, a graduate of Panama's jockey school, began his U.S. career near the tail end of the Gulfstream Park meet and caught on quickly. He switched to Calder in late April and chased veteran Manoel Cruz for the spring-summer title there, finishing second with 160 victories. At the Tropical session, Castro burst out of the gate and has not looked back.

"It's a big blessing to be on top at this meet, and I really need to thank all the trainers who have given me the opportunity to be there," he said.

Castro loses his five-pound apprentice allowance on Dec. 23 but is trying not to dwell too much upon life without the bug.

"I'm not going to worry about it," Castro said. "I know I'll be meeting some new faces over there [at Gulfstream] and will have to ride without the five pounds, but I'm just going to keep working and trying hard, and hopefully I'll continue to do well."

Bravo working horses for comeback

Jockey Joe Bravo, who missed the entire Meadowlands meeting after suffering a slight fracture of the sixth vertebrae in his back during a frightening spill on opening night, will return to action here on Nov. 28, according to his agent, Danny Maloof.

"Joe began working horses at Calder and Gulfstream earlier this week and is looking forward to getting back," Maloof said.

Bravo will remain in south Florida throughout the winter. This will be the first time in four years he has ridden regularly at Gulfstream.

Chispiski tops field for Cutlas Envoy

Chispiski, who has won the U Can Do It and Kims Country Diamond stakes since launching a comeback in mid-July, heads a well-matched field of nine fillies and mares set to go 6 1/2 furlongs in Saturday's $35,000-added Cutlas Envoy Stakes.

Chispiski will carry high weight of 122 pounds, with Julio Garcia aboard, under the allowance conditions of the Cutlas Envoy. Her main competition figures to come from Crafty Brat, Four Pennies, Charismatic Lady, and Belle Artiste.