04/24/2002 11:00PM

New stars in jockey room


An already competitive jockey colony has become a whole lot tougher.

When Delaware Park launches its 65th season Saturday afternoon, the list of regular jockeys will include last year's leading rider in North America, the 2001 Eclipse Award-winning apprentice, and a five-time track champion. Add Eddie Martin Jr., who led at riders at Fair Grounds with 120 winners, to the mix and it's clear the battle for leading rider will be keen.

Martin joins a strong group of jockeys, led by Ramon Dominguez, who rode 431 winners in 2001, the most in the nation; apprentice rider of the year Jeremy Rose; and Mike McCarthy, who led the track standings from 1996 to 2000 and has topped all Delaware riders in purse earnings the past six years.

"The more competition the better," said McCarthy, who returns to Delaware after riding at Gulfstream Park. "I thrive on new challenges and I'm looking forward to riding against the [others]."

As usual, McCarthy will be riding first call for Allen Iwinski, the track's leading trainer in 1997 and 2000.

Rose will be the prime rider for leading trainer Tim Ritchey, who saddled a track-record 87 winners last season. Like McCarthy, Rose said he's looking forward to the challenge of riding against top riders on a daily basis.

"This is going to be fun," Rose said. "Once you get to that level of being a good rider, everybody is pretty much equal. It's going to be real interesting because it is going to come down to how much horse you have and which horse shows up best for the race."

Dominguez, who last year rode full-time in Maryland and rode at Delaware on Maryland's dark days, plans to reverse his schedule this year. He intends to ride in Maryland only on Delaware's dark days.

"Delaware has never been easy," said Dominguez, who ranked fifth in last year's track standings and rode 10 stakes winners.

Although familiar faces like Iwinski, Ritchey, and Mike Pino are all back, nearly 40 new trainers, coming from such locales as New England, Florida, and Louisiana, will be making Delaware their home base. That group includes David Donk, Leo Azpurua Jr., and Jeff Trosclair. Donk will split his stable between New York and Delaware.

The highlight of the 139-day meeting will be the Delaware Handicap Festival of Racing, scheduled for July 20-21. The festival is capped by the Grade 3, $600,000 Delaware Handicap on Sunday, July 21.

The opening-day feature, the $75,000 Peach Blossom Stakes for 3-year-old filly sprinters, is headed by Cherokee Girl. Also, Cat Chat, winner of the Grade 2 Nassau County Stakes at Belmont Park last year, will make her 4-year-old debut in a six-furlong allowance.