10/02/2003 11:00PM

Panamanian rider Castro makes splash

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MIAMI, Fla. - Six months ago Eddie Castro was riding in his native Panama. Today the 18-year-old is among the winningest apprentice riders in the country, in the thick of a battle with veteran Manoel Cruz for the spring-summer riding title at Calder and a legitimate contender for an Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice.

Castro is also the hottest rider on the planet, having won 19 races in the last five days going into the weekend. During that time he won five races on a card twice and four once, and also rode both ends of the early daily double on four consecutive programs.

Castro is a product of Panama's jockey school. He had been riding races only four months and was the leading apprentice in Panama when he came to the United States in April.

"Riding in Panama was okay but the purses are not that big and I knew to further my career it would be best to come over here," Castro said through his interpreter and agent, Mike Gonzalez.

Castro rode two winners from six mounts in the final weeks of the Gulfstream Park meeting, and caught on quickly once racing switched to Calder at the end of April. He has chased Cruz for leading rider honors for most of the meet and has sliced what was a 20-win lead for Cruz last week into less than half that with his recent hot streak.

"I came here hoping to do well but never expected to do so well so quickly," said Castro. "I give a lot of the credit to Mike, who is not only my agent but a friend and former rider who has helped me learn a lot since I've been here."

Castro also said that Cornelio Velasquez, a fellow Panamanian, was helpful when he rode here this summer."

Although Castro has been riding races for less than a year, he already shows the poise and polish of a veteran. His winning ride aboard Stauch in Friday's second race offers a perfect example as Castro waited patiently along the hedge until able to squeeze through a narrow opening. He then outfinished the wide-running Mychampion by a neck.

Castro plans to stay on in south Florida this winter. He loses his five-pound apprentice allowance in December.

"Right now I'm riding with a lot of confidence and having fun," he said. "I want to try to win the jockey title, get established in this area, and keep improving as a rider. I try not even to think about what will happen after I lose the bug."

Ivanavinalot on the fence

Ivanavinalot worked seven furlongs in 1:29.60 and galloped out a mile in 1:45.60 over the turf on Friday, after which trainer Kathleen O'Connell said she is uncertain whether her Grade 2 winner will launch her turf career in Saturday's $200,000 Calder Oaks.

"I'll see how she does the next couple of days before making a decision," said O'Connell. "I really would have liked to gotten another work into her but lost that chance due to the rain earlier this week, which kept us from working on the turf last Monday."

If Ivanavinalot does run in the Oaks Jerry Bailey will have the mount, O'Connell said.

Ivanavinalot was one of three Oaks probables to work on the grass Friday, along with Askforaraise (half-mile in 48.40) and Dakota Light (five-eighths in 1:02.60). Formal Miss, who may go of as a slight favorite in the Oaks, worked seven furlongs in 1:28.20 over the main track earlier Friday morning.