02/26/2005 1:00AM

Little separates two leading riders

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - For the past year and a half a pretty good rivalry has been building between jockeys Terry Houghton and Jesus Castanon at Tampa Bay Downs.

With three victories on Thursday and a riding double on Friday, Houghton moved to the top of the jockey standings with 55 wins, two more than Castanon. If history holds true, the race for leading rider will continue to the final days of the meet. To illustrate just how dominant the pair has been this season, Castanon's 53 victories puts him 24 ahead of the third-place rider, Winston Thompson

Last season, with Houghton returning to action in January following 14 months of recuperation and therapy after suffering serious injuries suffered in a fall at Great Lakes Downs, he and Castanon dominated the standings through much of the meet. The two went back and forth through February and March and the title was in doubt until the final few programs.

Houghton, who rides regularly at Great Lakes, even flew back and forth between Michigan and Florida to ride weekend programs the final weeks of the meet, but in the end Castanon prevailed, winning 87 races, five more than Houghton.

This season, Castanon sprinted to a sizable early lead, but Houghton came roaring back, and since early January the race has been tight.

Houghton admitted recently that there may have been an upside to his long absence from riding. During his downtime, he avoided all the wear and tear on his body that goes along with riding more than 1,000 horses a year.

Both Houghton and Castanon are intensely competitive, so look for this battle to intensify as the meet progresses.

Sir Oscar wins comeback

Sir Oscar, who captured national attention a 2-year-old in 2003 when he won his first six races before going off form, returned to action on Feb. 19 and captured a seven-furlong allowance against a field that included multiple stakes winner Sea of Tranquility and O'Malley, the track-record holder for 6 1/2 furlongs. Sir Oscar earned a 91 Beyer Speed Figure.

Sir Oscar is trained by Maria Pascual, who is winning at a better than 25 percent clip at Gulfstream this winter. Sir Oscar is eligible for the $65,000 Budweiser Challenge Stakes at 1 1/16 miles to be run here this Saturday.

Charity golf, auction

In 1992, jockey Emilio "Go Go" Gomez, track chaplain Ken Boehm of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, and others decided there had to be a way to raise funds to help the needy in the racing community. They started "Hearts Reaching Out" and organized a golf tournament as a fund-raiser. Over the years the day has grown to include a dinner and auction. This year's event will be held on March 7.

The golf tournament will be held at Eastlake Woodlands Country Club. Cost for the tournament, which includes greens and cart fee, lunch, and a starter gift, is $75 per person.

The dinner will be held at Tampa Bay Downs at 6 p.m. with the auction, which will include stallion seasons, racing and sports memorabilia, gift certificates, and other items, to begin at 7 p.m. Tickets for the dinner are $10.

More informatiuon is available from Sharon Wasiluk at (813) 494-1870 or Ruben Rodriguez at (813) 300-6060.