02/03/2006 1:00AM

Rider switch not a knock against horse

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - John Velazquez rides first call for trainer Todd Pletcher and was aboard Friendly Island last time out when he finished third as the favorite in the Mr. Prospector Handicap. But when Friendly Island comes back Sunday in the Grade 3, $100,000 Deputy Minister Handicap at Gulfstream Park, Edgar Prado will be aboard Friendly Island and Velazquez will be aboard War Front, who was second last time out in the Mr. Prospector.

On the surface, it appears Velazquez simply preferred War Front, who is trained by Allen Jerkens, to Friendly Island. But that's not necessarily so. The way the assignments played out offers a glimpse into the daily relationships between jockeys and trainers, and how assumptions by handicappers might prove false.

According to Pletcher, Friendly Island was the subject of a possible sale earlier this week. "I wasn't sure what his status was going to be, and Johnny had the opportunity to ride the other horse," Pletcher said Friday. "I didn't want to get in the way, in case my horse didn't run."

The sale, however, did not materialize, so Friendly Island is in the 6 1/2-furlong Deputy Minister. But by the time it was a certainty he would run in this spot, Velazquez already had committed to War Front.

Friendly Island is the quickest horse in the race, but War Front also has sharp early speed. With those two occupying the two inside posts, the tactics of Velazquez on War Front could determine whether those two battle it out right from the start, or whether Friendly Island gets loose early.

"A lot will depend on what War Front does," Pletcher said. "We're always forwardly placed."

has raced three times since returning in October from knee surgery. He won the Hudson Handicap for New York-breds at Belmont Park in his first start in 11 months, then was fourth in the De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel before the Mr. Prospector.

"We've been pointing for this race since his last start, so even though the sale was a possibility, it didn't interrupt his training," Pletcher said.

finished three-quarters of a length in front of Friendly Island in the Mr. Prospector. Velazquez will be riding him for the first time, replacing Jose Santos, who rode War Front in his last five starts but is based in New York this winter.

drew the top weight assignment in the Deputy Minister, even though he has had most of his success in Canada, and has not raced since August. He was a runaway winner against $50,000 claimers here at last year's meet.