10/19/2001 12:00AM

From El Comandante to Delaware, Javier Santiago's got star power

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Jockey Javier Santiago didn't begin riding regularly at Delaware Park until late June, almost two months into the meet. Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, has more than made up for lost time while establishing himself as one of the top young riders at the track.

Santiago, who celebrated his 24th birthday on Thursday, has thrived in his new surroundings. Through Wednesday's racing, he ranks 14th in the Delaware jockey standings with 28 winners. Overall, he has finished in the money with 79 of his 158 mounts - exactly 50 percent.

"I am very happy and pleased with how I have done at this meet," said Santiago through his agent, Mickey Diaz, who served as translator. "I could not have done it without the support I have gotten from trainers and owners here.

"I am hoping that I can continue the success over into the meet next year. Through the connections we have made this year, I am sure we can do even better next year."

Mike Pino, fourth in the track's trainer standings, is among the horsemen Santiago has impressed.

"He has a very bright future," Pino said. "He's an all-around solid rider. He's very versatile and he can ride on or off the pace. He's also one of the hardest workers on the track. Combine that with his talent and he should have a great future."

Although Santiago is unfamiliar to American racing fans, he's no novice. He began riding in 1996 at Hipodromo El Comandante in Puerto Rico and quickly became a star. As an apprentice that season, he set a record for most winners at El Comandante with 278 winners. The following year, he rode 254 winners. Before leaving El Comandante this year, he had 80 winners which, at the time, ranked him second in the standings.

When Delaware closes next month, Santiago plans to ride at Aqueduct, where his main connections will be owner Richard Englander and trainer Scott Lake.

A tale of two Tigers

Sunday's $100,000 First State Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race for 2-year-olds, could come down to a pair of Tigers.

Soul of the Tiger, an easy winner in his career debut at one mile, and Ride the Tiger, who recorded his career-best Beyer Speed Figure when stretched out to two turns, are two of the prime contenders.

Soul of the Tiger, trained by Linda Rice, led wire to wire to beat a field of maidens by 7 1/4 lengths at The Meadowlands on Oct. 9, earning an impressive Beyer Speed Figure of 80. His time was nearly two seconds faster than older fillies and mares ran the same distance one race later on the card.

In a field where none of the other horses shows much early speed, Soul of the Tiger could be tough to catch alone on the lead.

Ride the Tiger was second, beaten almost five lengths, when trainer Tim Ritchey tried him at a mile for the first time in the Dover Stakes, but improved his Beyer to a 77. Booklet, the horse who beat him, returned to score a convincing victory in last weekend's $400,000 In Reality Stakes at Calder.

The other serious threat is Mazoolian Ghost, who drew clear to defeat six opponents in his stakes debut, the one-mile Valley Forge at Philadelphia Park. Mazoolian Ghost's 78 Beyer from that race puts him right there with the Tigers.

o Delaware will have a six-race card of live racing, with a 10:45 a.m. first race post time, on Breeders' Cup Day, Oct. 27. Beginning Oct. 28 and continuing through the end of the meet on Sunday, Nov. 4, the first race post time will move to 12:20 p.m. because of the start of Eastern Standard Time.