09/24/2002 11:00PM

Sweet home Vancouver for Alvarado

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VANCOUVER, B.C. - Pedro Alvarado, who is on his way to his first riding title in just his second season of riding at Hastings Park, has clearly found a home in Vancouver.

Alvarado, a 37-year-old from Mexico, counts himself fortunate, because a home was exactly what he needed when he landed here early last year after riding out a six-month contract in Macau, an island off the south China coast.

For the previous 15 years, Alvarado lived and rode in Washington State, where he amassed seven riding titles at Yakima Meadows and became the third-leading all time rider at Emerald Downs with 362 wins in 4 1/2 seasons of riding. During that span, Alvarado earned a reputation as a hard-working professional who kept out of trouble. He also married a U. S. citizen and began raising his three daughters.

His accomplishments did not sway the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which had been trying to deport Alvarado since he applied for permanent residency status in 1994. According to published accounts, a background check conducted at that time turned up a misdemeanor from 1987, when Alvarado was convicted of driving a car from which another man sold drugs to an undercover police officer. Though that conviction was later thrown out, the INS concluded that Alvarado was an undesirable person and ruled that he be deported in 1995. Three years later, the INS denied Alvarado's appeal, and early in 2001, shortly before Alvarado was scheduled to return from Macau, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the INS deportation ruling.

"So when we landed in Vancouver, I had no country to go to and no place to work," recalled Alvarado. "My family had been with me in Macau, and they went back to our home in Washington. I was planning to go back to Mexico, but the flight stopped in Los Angeles so they wouldn't let me on the plane. I was stuck here."

After a few days of pondering his plight in a hotel room, Alvarado called local rider Frank Fuentes.

"Frank was very helpful to me," said Alvarado. "He suggested that I apply to ride at Hastings, then he took me to the track and introduced me to the assistant racing secretary, Lorne Mitchell. We made out the application together, and six weeks later I got my visa to ride here."

Alvarado rode 88 winners here last season to rank fourth in the standings despite missing the last two months of the season with a severe concussion, and he laid the groundwork for an even better meeting this year.

"This spring my agent, Trapper Barroby, told me I'd be his number one rider and that he expected me to be the leading rider," said Alvarado. "He pushed me pretty hard and I worked a lot of horses before the meeting began, but even so I got off to a slow start for the first two weeks. Then things started picking up, and they have gotten better and better."

Alvarado rode seven winners last weekend to boost his total for the meeting to 89, 23 more than his nearest pursuer. With just 20 days remaining in the 77-day stand, he seems assured of his first local riding title. He hopes to try for many more.

"I plan to stay here, no matter what happens with my appeals to get back into the U.S.," he said. "I'm continuing the appeals because I'd like to go back to visit my friends and my wife's family, but I don't know what will happen. I've tried so hard for so many years, and I've spent more than $60,000 for attorney's fees. It's frustrating.

"But I feel like this is my home now. We sold our house in Washington and bought a place here, and we all love Vancouver. I really prefer riding here, too. The trainers have treated me really well, I get along with all the riders, and I get to ride a lot of live horses.

"It's funny the way things go. I never would have ridden here if it hadn't been for my trouble in the U.S., but now I wouldn't have it any other way. Things have worked out better than I could have imagined."