12/31/2004 12:00AM

Rising stars could shake things up

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Javier Castellano (above) enters the Gulfstream meet off his Breeders' Cup Classic win aboard Ghostzapper. Cornelio Velasquez has finished second in Gulfstream's last three meets.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The jockey colony for the upcoming Gulfstream Park meeting will be second to none. Anchored by Hall of Famers Jerry Bailey and Pat Day as well as future Hall of Famers Edgar Prado and John Velazquez, the group will also include three-time Gulfstream titleholder Jorge Chavez, Eclipse Award winner Jose Santos, six-time British riding champ Kieren Fallon, Joe Bravo, Eibar Coa, and Calder kingpin Eddie Castro.

But despite all that talent in the room, it shouldn't surprise anyone if Cornelio Velasquez and Javier Castellano wind up having themselves a big winter in south Florida.

Velasquez, 36, is no stranger to success at Gulfstream Park despite not getting the media attention his more publicized colleagues receive. He has finished second in each of the last three Gulfstream meetings and comes into the new year riding as well as anybody at Calder, where he has won with nearly 25 percent of his mounts during the Tropical session.

A graduate of Panama's famed jockey school that produced such legendary riders as Jorge Velasquez, Braulio Baeza, and Laffit Pincay Jr., Velasquez came to the U.S. in 1993. He eventually settled on the New York circuit in 1996, then moved his tack permanently to Calder earlier this decade where he supplanted Coa as local riding champion in 2001 and 2002. He has since established himself on both the New York and Kentucky circuits and was leading rider at the 2003 Churchill Downs spring meet

Among Velasquez's biggest supporters when he first came to south Florida was Calder's perennial leading trainer Bill White.

"After watching Cornelio ride just a couple of horses I could see he was the real deal," said White. "What I like about him is that he rides equally well on a seriously good horse or on a cheap claiming horse, and he's also outstanding on the turf. He gives you the best he's got all the time and rides hard to pick up secondary awards, which I really appreciate. Now that he's ridden in New York and Kentucky I can tell he's got a taste of the big time and is looking for more, but he still has some fire and is willing to ride the cheap horse if he has a chance, rather than sitting in the room and waiting for a key race. As a trainer, that's important because all of us have a lot of cheap horses mixed in with a few good ones."

Velasquez remains low key about his recent success and admits to looking forward to the upcoming Gulfstream meeting.

"I think I've gotten to the stage where I can compete at the top level and with the top-level riders as long as I'm riding the right horses," said Velasquez. "Business is good now. I've gotten in with a lot of trainers from New York and Kentucky, and I think there's a good chance I'm in position to pick up a key Derby horse down here this winter."

Castellano also gained valuable experience and picked up some riding titles at Calder earlier in the decade before settling in New York on a regular basis in the winter of 2001. A 27-year-old native of Venezuela, Castellano is coming off a memorable year in 2004, which included his marriage in July to Abby Meyocks, daughter of former New York Racing Association president Terry Meyocks, and his victory aboard Ghostzapper in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"I went to New York to make a name for myself and have been waiting for the right time to come back to Gulfstream," said Castellano. "After winning the Breeders' Cup Classic I knew this was the time. Riding Ghostzapper has opened even more doors for my career and my goal now is to try to move up to the next level along with riders like Jerry Bailey, Edgar Prado, and John Velazquez, as well as hopefully find a big 3-year-old down here this winter."

One New York trainer who embraced Castellano even before his graduation to the Big Apple was Nick Zito, and they have proven a successful team.

"I thought he had good talent and a good attitude, which is an incredible combination for any athlete in any sport," said Zito. "I could see right off the bat he was a team player and that he would be loyal, which is a quality I admire in a person and hold in the highest regard."

Zito has ridden Castellano on some of his better horses over the past several years, including Najran, Eurosilver, and Quest, and has resisted the temptation to switch to some of the more highly publicized riders when the opportunity presented itself.

"Believe me, I was under so much pressure to make a change on those horses from so many people," said Zito. "I knew I was taking a big chance sticking with Javier, but I believed in him and fortunately everything turned out for the best. And winning some of the races he did on those types of horses ultimately put him in a position where someone like Bobby Frankel would have confidence enough to ride him on a horse like Ghostzapper in the Breeders' Cup."