12/26/2001 12:00AM

Cornelio Velasquez makes his mark

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MIAMI - The passing of the torch.

At one time, the leading riders were Jerry Bailey and Jacinto Vasquez, members of racing's Hall of Fame. They were followed here in south Florida by Alex Solis and Jorge Chavez, now among the nation's top jockeys. Eibar Coa and Javier Castellano had their day before heading north to sustained success.

Now it's Cornelio Velasquez's turn to bask in the glow of the spotlight before moving his act to more remunerative sites.

Velasquez, 33, was leading rider of the Calder meeting this season for the first time, with 144 winners, and appears headed for the title at the Tropical Park meeting, which concludes Jan. 2. He currently has 47 winners.

Last year, when Coa led his Calder colleagues, Velasquez had 61 winners. He had 29 winners at the Tropical meeting, led by Castellano. So his improvement has been dramatic.

"He's been impressive," said Florida's veteran state steward, Walter Blum, a Hall of Fame jockey in his own right with almost 4,400 winners to his credit before his retirement in 1975. "He keeps out of trouble, he knows what he's doing, and he has his mounts under control at all times. He always has something left at the end of a race. He's an experienced rider with a great deal of ability."

Horsemen can trust Velasquez with their best stock, and he makes the most of these opportunities. This fall for example, he rode Blissful Kiss from off the pace to win the $400,000 Florida Stallion Stakes and rode a stalking race to win the $200,000 Calder Oaks on the same program with Sara's Success.

Velasquez, a native of Panama, attended the national riding academy, which produced such legendary riders as Braulio Baeza, Laffit Pincay Jr., and Jorge Velasquez. The United States is one of the few racing countries without such a school. One was proposed several years ago, but no detail was issued on how to fund the project and nothing further has been heard on its development.

Velasquez proved an outstanding graduate and led all jockeys in that country with more than 200 winners in a season that offers racing only three days a week. He rode briefly in California in 1993, returned to Panama, and then went back to the United States in 1996, alternating between New York and Florida. He made notable progress in recent seasons and has been helped by the services of a top agent Gilbert Graell.

Calder has been the stage for the development of many outstanding riders. Velasquez may be the latest of these.