07/21/2010 1:56PM

Saratoga jockey colony as deep as ever

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – In the 26 meets from 1976-2001, only six jockeys have been leading rider at Saratoga. In each of the last four years, a different rider has won the title, capped by Ramon Dominguez’s first crown in 2009.

If Dominguez is to repeat – and win his 10th consecutive New York Racing Association meet title – he’s going to have to do it against the deepest riding colony assembled here in many years.

“I’ve been doing this since 1973,” said Ron Anderson, agent for Garrett Gomez, a two-time Eclipse Award winner who is returning to ride Saratoga for the first time since he finished third here in 2007. “This is one of the toughest colonies I’ve ever worked in.”

So tough, in fact, that a jockey as accomplished as Alex Solis – he of 4,771 wins – who is riding his first Saratoga meet, could struggle mightily. Solis could ride frequently for Wesley Ward.

“It’s very deep,” Brian Beach, Solis’s agent, said of the Saratoga colony. “I think this is stronger than when I was here before with Mike [Smith]. More depth.”

Dominguez won last year’s title with 45 wins, five more than Alan Garcia, who won the title in 2008. Dominguez rode 18 winners over the final 12 days of the 2009 meet. Dominguez showed that strong finish again winning the Belmont title with 73 winners, including 40 over the final 25 days of the meet. He finished 23 wins in front of Javier Castellano.

Dominguez, who rides for virtually everybody, calls Saratoga “the meet everybody wants to win.”

There is much debate over which rider could give Dominguez the biggest challenge this year.

The perception that trainer Todd Pletcher is loaded with horses that could bring him his seventh training title makes John Velazquez a popular selection to return to prominence here. In 1998, Velazquez interrupted Jerry Bailey’s streak of seven Saratoga titles in eight years by taking the crown. Velazquez also won the title in 2003-04. Pletcher won 35 races at each of those meets.

“I’m expecting to have a very good meet,’’ said Angel Cordero, the agent for Velazquez and the jockey who won 13 riding titles here in 14 years from 1976-1989. “I’m hoping we’re going to be strong enough in the baby [2-year-old] races.”

Gomez, Castellano, and David Cohen also will be aboard horses for Pletcher.

Julien Leparoux, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning rider, heads a strong list of Kentucky invaders that includes Robby Albarado, Shaun Bridgmohan, Calvin Borel, and Miguel Mena. Bridgmohan benefits from being first-call rider for Steve Asmussen.

Riding for Kiaran McLaughlin, Rick Violette, Linda Rice, and Ken McPeek should give Alan Garcia a chance to compete for the title. McLaughlin has 20 to 25 2-year-olds in addition to a solid stable of older horses. Garcia is coming off a bit of a disappointing ninth-place finish in the Belmont standings.

In 2008, his first full meet at Saratoga, Rajiv Maragh won 19 races. He increased that to 33 last year – including eight stakes – and could win that many races again this year.

“I’ve got a very good young rider and I’m hoping to have a similar meet to what we had last year,” said Richie DePass, Maragh’s agent.

Jose Lezcano hopes to follow in Maragh’s footsteps in that he hopes to build upon the 15 winners he had last year in his first full season here. All he has to do is turn some of those 26 second-place finishes he had into wins, and he’ll have a strong meet. Lezcano has support from Nick Zito, Chad Brown, Mike Matz, and Tom Proctor.

Cornelio Velasquez edged Kent Desormeaux by one win to take the 2007 title. After slumping when he lost DePass as an agent last year, Velasquez had a strong Belmont meet with 45 wins. Velasquez, now represented by Roger Sutton, has business with Rice, last year’s leading trainer, and Barclay Tagg.

As the main rider for Bill Mott and a regular pilot for Ken McPeek, Desormeaux should win his share of races. Edgar Prado’s fortunes could depend on how well Richard Dutrow Jr. fares.

Cohen has enjoyed tremendous success in New York, but may find his first Saratoga meet a big challenge. Riding for David Jacobson, and with a handful of calls from Pletcher, he should win some.

Though apprentice riders usually struggle at Saratoga, Frederic Lenclud appears to the best of the young bunch.