04/14/2004 12:00AM

Jockeys fight for position

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Ramon Dominguez reunited with Tapit to win the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Now the colt will be Dominguez's first Kentucky Derby mount.

The sharks are circling. They always do this time of year, when lesser-name jockeys end up on big-name horses for the Kentucky Derby, and when big-name jockeys find themselves caught on more than one potential mount, while perhaps desiring yet another.

These were the waters that jockey Ramon Dominguez found himself in both before and after last Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. But Dominguez and his agent, Steve Rushing, must have had an ample supply of shark repellent. On Wednesday, it was confirmed that Dominguez would retain the mount on Tapit for the 130th Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs.

This will be the first Derby mount for Dominguez, who has steadily ascended the national standings to become one of the sport's top riders. Dominguez, a 27-year-old native of Venezuela who rides primarily in Maryland and Delaware, in 2003 finished first in victories with 453, and eighth in purse earnings with mounts that earned more than $11.3 million. This year, Dominguez already has won more than 100 races, and sports a 26.8 win percentage.

But he had to endure a few anxious days. Dominguez rode Tapit to victory in last year's Laurel Futurity, but when Tapit made his 3-year-old debut in last month's Florida Derby, the rider was replaced by Edgar Prado. Dominguez regained the mount for the Wood Memorial - in part because Prado chose to go to the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes to ride Birdstone, who was subsequently scratched - and he gave Tapit a perfect ride, but Prado and Jerry Bailey were among those still out there, lurking.

David Fiske, the racing manager for owner Ron Winchell, said Wednesday from Kentucky that the choice of Dominguez was made because of "his familiarity and unwavering confidence with the colt."

"He's worked the colt at the farm, and at Delaware and Laurel, and he gave him an excellent ride in the Wood," Fiske said.

Dominguez was elated with the news.

"I feel great," Dominguez said Wednesday afternoon from the jockeys' room at Pimlico. "I'm very fortunate. I don't take it for granted that they put me back on the horse. They could get any rider they wanted. I'm very thankful. It's a big thrill."

Of all the persons connected with Tapit - including trainer Michael Dickinson - it was Dominguez who displayed the most confidence in the colt leading up to the Wood.

"Dickinson was realistic with the horse because he wasn't 100 percent," Dominguez said, referring to Tapit's truncated training schedule after he emerged from the Florida Derby with mucus in his lungs. "I was very confident. That doesn't mean I knew what the outcome would be. But I know what he's capable of.

"In the Laurel Futurity, he tried to run off with me for the first five-eighths of a mile, and he still kicked in pretty good," he said. "He's something special."

With Tapit now off the market, Bailey and Prado are among those still contemplating several options. Bailey has been the regular rider of both Eddington and Read the Footnotes, but both have questions.

Even with the Derby defections in recent days of Consecrate, Kilgowan, and Mr. Jester, Eddington still has insufficient earnings in graded-stakes races to make the top 20, the Derby limit. And Eddington's position could be further eroded if runners in Saturday's Coolmore Lexington Stakes who are currently below him - such as Fire Slam and Quintons Gold Rush - make enough money to leapfrog past him.

Read the Footnotes has not raced since a fourth-place finish in last month's Florida Derby. He will come into the Derby off a seven-week rest.

Prado could still end up on Birdstone, but several mounts are open, or will be coming open. Bob Baffert is going to choose new riders for both Preachinatthebar and Wimbledon. Todd Pletcher said John Velazquez will ride either Limehouse or Pollard's Vision.

There's still plenty of movement to come among the jockeys. But both Dominguez and Stewart Elliott, the rider of Arkansas Derby winner Smarty Jones, have fought off the sharks.

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

* Minister Eric ran his way into the Derby with an easy 4 1/4-length victory over six overmatched rivals in a first-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland.

Ridden by Alex Solis, Minister Eric tracked an easy pace set by Go Now before drawing clear down the stretch. Minister Eric, an Old Trieste colt bred and owned by Gerald Ford's Diamond A Racing, returned $2.40 after finishing in 1:44.81 over a fast track.

"He's in," trainer Richard Mandella said afterward.

Minister Eric has won just two of eight career starts and amassed most of his $350,000 in graded earnings by finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. His graded earnings will be enough to make the Derby field.

"He ran terrific until he got the lead and started looking around," said Mandella. "He's been kind of shy about winning, you know, but maybe he'll think it's okay after this. He's got three races in him now [this year]. I think this is a great way to go into the Derby, instead of beating him up in some tough race."

* Castledale, the Santa Anita Derby winner, worked five furlongs in 59.60 seconds at Santa Anita.

* St Averil's status will be determined after a workout this weekend at Santa Anita. He is wearing egg bar shoes to protect his chronically bruised front feet.

* Pletcher said Value Plus is "unlikely to go to the Derby."

* Tricky Taboo is still a possibility, according to trainer Ed Frederick.

* Kilgowan and Mr. Jester have been turned out for brief freshenings and are out of the Derby. Consecrate is also out after undergoing surgery for an entrapped epiglottis, Baffert said.

- additional reporting by Brad Free, Marty McGee, and Mary Rampellini