03/15/2004 12:00AM

Hot new rider creates buzz

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Bob Baffert calls him "Zorro." For sure, jockey Javier Santiago is leaving his mark. The 26-year-old native of Puerto Rico arrived in this country just six weeks ago, and already has won the Louisiana Derby and San Felipe Stakes, two of the biggest prep races for the Kentucky Derby.

His ascension is the combination of talent, a changing of the guard in the jockey colony in Southern California, a top agent in Tony Matos, and the backing of several big-name trainers, most notably Baffert, for whom Santiago won the Louisiana Derby with Wimbledon and Sunday's San Felipe at Santa Anita with Preachinatthebar.

Santiago speaks very little English. Through an interpreter, he said he did not think he would get such choice mounts so quickly.

"I'm very surprised. I thought it would take more time," he said. "I thank God that I have been given the ability to be successful."

Santiago was a top rider in Puerto Rico, where he won more than 1,500 races. He was looking to come to the United States, he said, "because I wanted to show my skills, and I had the opportunity to work with Tony Matos."

Matos said he first became aware of Santiago last fall through Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., who is also from Puerto Rico and whom Matos represented as agent from 1971-1981. Another former riding great, Eddie Belmonte - now a racing official in Puerto Rico - implored Matos to give Santiago a chance.

"Eddie said he was the best rider he had seen in many, many years," Matos said Monday.

Matos also represents Victor Espinoza. Agents in Southern California are allowed to handle two riders. After getting Espinoza's permission - "Victor's got class," Matos said - Matos pursued Santiago.

Matos earlier this year asked Santiago to send him some tapes, which Matos then showed to several trainers on the Southern California circuit. He got positive feedback from the likes of Ruben Cardenas, Neil Drysdale, Kathy Walsh, and Baffert, who told Matos, "Bring him here tomorrow."

"I was thinking I would bring him in at Hollywood Park in June," Matos said. "I called him and asked him when could he get here. He said in a month. I told him he had to come quicker."

Santiago, along with his wife and their two children, arrived in California in time for him to ride the Feb. 4 card at Santa Anita. He rode four races that day, and won twice, both for Cardenas.

Four days later, Santiago climbed aboard Wimbledon when that colt beat maidens. He has been a mainstay with Baffert ever since.

"He's very cool, and he's a very smart rider," said Baffert, who has a good rapport with Santiago because he speaks Spanish fluently. "He's got a lot of composure. He doesn't panic. And after a race he can explain something to you. Horses just run for him. He doesn't speak English very well, but knows horses well."

As for the nickname, Baffert said it's not because of anything Santiago does with his whip. In fact. Santiago is quite polished, and uses the whip sparingly.

"Why Zorro? Javier Santiago sounds like something from a Zorro movie," Baffert said.

Not all news for Mandella was bad

Halfbridled lost for the first time in Saturday's Santa Anita Oaks. Minister Eric was defeated in a first-level allowance race on Saturday. And Action This Day was soundly beaten in the San Felipe. It was not a particularly good weekend for trainer Richard Mandella, but he was relieved on Sunday to find Action This Day was not seriously injured in the San Felipe.

Action This Day was stepped on by Laditude heading into the first turn of the San Felipe. A gash opened on the back of Action This Day's right hind leg, just above the ankle. Mandella hurried back to the barn after the race to examine the colt, worried that the laceration might have struck the tendon, which could have resulted in a career-ending injury.

"I just hope it's not into the tendon," Mandella said.

When he arrived at the barn, assistant Becky Witzman was the first to inform Mandella that the cut was not deep. "It's not that bad," she said. The tension evaporated from Mandella's body as he let out an audible, "Whew."

Action This Day was walking sound on the leg after getting a bath. The wound was closed with a couple of stitches.

Mandella said he was puzzled why Action This Day acted up in the post parade.

"We schooled him, and he was just as bad as last time," he said.

* Pomeroy, prepping for Saturday's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, worked five furlongs in 1:00.80 on Monday morning at Santa Anita for trainer Patrick Biancone.

* Congaree, who is scheduled to make his next start in the April 10 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct for Baffert, sped five furlongs in 58.80 seconds Sunday morning at Santa Anita. The time was the day's best among 41 who worked that distance.

* At Hollywood Park on Sunday, trainer Bobby Frankel sent New Orleans Handicap winner Peace Rules through a half-mile work in 47.80 seconds, and Vosburgh Stakes winner Ghostzapper worked five furlongs in 1:00.

Race conditions changed to attract foreign horses

The conditions of allowance races at California tracks will be changed in mid-April in an attempt to attract horses that have won races that offered little prize money.

Currently, races are written for nonwinners of $3,000 other than maiden, claiming or starter. Effective April 14, the monetary limit will be raised to $7,500. Wins in group races that pay less than $7,500 to the winner will not qualify for the new conditions.

Racing officials hope the change will allow horses from foreign circuits such as South America, New Zealand, and some parts of Europe to be eligible for lower levels of allowance races than previously allowed.

The condition will have little or no effect on horses that race in California, most of whom run in allowance races that pay more than $7,500 to the winner.

The new condition is designed to encourage horses to be sent to California. It was made following discussions between racetrack officials and executives with the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

"We're trying to attract more horses," said Drew Couto, the executive director of the TOC. "The fans want more horses and owners want more horses."

Landsburg back on TOC Board

Alan Landsburg, the former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, has rejoined the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California after an absence of more than three years.

Landsburg served on the TOC board from the organization's inception in 1993 until he was nominated to the CHRB. His term with the CHRB recently ended.

During his term on the CHRB, Landsburg was an outspoken critic of the lack of horse racing on television, particularly the inability of Magna Entertainment to gain widespread cable and satellite distribution for its Horse Racing Television network.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen