03/05/2002 1:00AM

Lezcano just keeps winning


JAMAICA, N.Y. - Eight months into his stay in the U.S., Lorenzo Lezcano still struggles with the English language. It is about the only thing the 20-year-old Panamanian rider is struggling with these days.

Lezcano entered the final week of Aqueduct's 69-day inner track meeting as the leading rider, with 66 wins, 12 more than both Shaun Bridgmohan and Javier Castellano. Barring the improbable, Lezcano will become the first apprentice since Ramon Perez (1994 Aqueduct fall) to win a New York riding title. Other apprentices to win riding titles in New York the last 20 years - encompassing more than 100 race meets - include Wesley Ward (twice), Declan Murphy, David Nuesch, and Robbie Davis.

Lezcano won about 50 races in Panama before getting injured in May. At the urging of agent Jose "Chocolate" Rivera, Lezcano came to the U.S. in August and began riding at Saratoga. At a meet where apprentices have often gone winless, Lezcano won two races at Saratoga. He won six at Belmont and 16 at Aqueduct's fall meet.

Apprentice riders, who are given a five-pound weight allowance from journeyman riders, have often done well at Aqueduct in the winter. The weight break, combined with the winter defections to Florida of Jerry Bailey, Edgar Prado, John Velazquez, and Jorge Chavez, make apprentices an attractive alternative.

Lezcano has enjoyed 16 multiple-win days since Dec. 5, including a career-high five-win afternoon on Feb. 6. He also earned his first stakes win this winter, taking the Alex M. Robb Handicap on Dec. 30 with Sweet Ricky.

Lezcano's poise, confidence, and finishing ability have endeared him to many leading horsemen. Lezcano has booted home winners for 28 trainers, including seven for leading trainer Gary Contessa.

"I think he is a journeyman with a five-pound bug," Contessa said. "I rode John Velazquez as a bug and I see a lot of John Velazquez in this kid. I always thought he was way too seasoned to be a bug boy. He's got a very good sense of pace and he's a very strong finisher."

Allen Iwinski has been Lezcano's biggest benefactor this winter, as the duo has teamed to win nine races the past three months. Iwinski was turned onto Lezcano by some of his owners who were impressed by the apprentice. It didn't take long for Iwinski to become a fan as well.

"He rates horses very well, but he was winning on the lead and off the pace," Iwinski said. "He made some mistakes, but not very often. I think horses just run for him. Even horses that didn't win were right there."

Lezcano knew very little English when he first came to New York. He is taking English classes twice a week and can communicate problem-free with horsemen, though he still is more comfortable speaking Spanish.

Lezcano's toughest challenge lies ahead. He will lose his apprentice status on March 21. Shortly thereafter he will take 20 days' worth of suspensions. He will take that time to return to Panama to see his family and plans to return to riding on April 13. When he returns, he will once again be competing against some of the best riders in the game - only at equal weights.

"I'll prepare first of all mentally," Lezcano said through an interpreter. "I know one day I have to lose the bug. I think I can make it. I'll continue to work hard every day and take it from there."

Contessa and Iwinski are both building the type of barns that can compete in New York on a year-round basis. Both trainers said they'd continue to use Lezcano even though they will use other riders as well.

"He's definitely a kid I'll continue to ride," Contessa said. "His English is very limited, yet he always seems to make the right decisions."

Iwinski acknowledged that he uses Velazquez and Prado and that Lezcano may not ride everything.

"I'm not going to take him off any horses he's been winning on, that's for sure," Iwinski said. "A couple of my owners have indicated to me they'd continue to use him."

Lezcano is 102 pounds, but is extremely strong. Rivera believes he has a bright future.

"He's a very strong rider with a good mentality," Rivera said. "I think he can make it. It's not going to be easy, but if he continues to work hard . . . He's only 20, he's just a baby."

A baby that just wins.