07/23/2006 11:00PM

Top to bottom, the best of the best

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The names and faces have changed, but the competitive nature of the Saratoga jockey colony remains the same. In fact, despite the retirements of Hall of Fame riders Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens, this year's colony may be the deepest it has ever been.

While John Velazquez and Edgar Prado are the deserving favorites to win the Saratoga riding title, their competition will be brutally tough. Garrett Gomez, Kent Desormeaux, and former Saratoga riding champion Mike Smith are here after spending last summer at Del Mar.

Julien Leparoux won the first three races of his career here last summer, when he was an unknown 10-pound apprentice. Now, he is the leading rider in the country with 276 wins. Rafael Bejarano tied Leparoux for most wins at Keeneland and was second to him at Churchill. He should improve upon the seven wins he had here last summer.

Shaun Bridgmohan last rode regularly at Saratoga in 2004, when he went 10 for 149. Last year, he left New York and won the Arlington riding title. He has returned to Saratoga to ride first call for the powerful Scott Blasi stable. Blasi has taken over the training duties from Steve Asmussen, who is serving a six-month suspension.

Eibar Coa is the leading rider in New York in wins this year and recently fell one win shy of the Belmont spring title, which was won by Prado. Cornelio Velasquez was the third-leading rider at the Belmont meet, and looks to have become Bill Mott's go-to jockey. Mike Luzzi, Javier Castellano, and Richard Migliore are all coming off solid Belmont spring meets.

"Whenever you're at the top racetracks, they say most of your jocks' rooms go six, seven, eight deep," Gomez said. "This seems to go a lot deeper than six, seven, eight deep. It's going to be exciting, and I'm glad to be a part of it."

Gomez, who was the second-leading rider at Del Mar last summer, came East in April to become the first-call rider for Todd Pletcher after Velazquez got injured. Though Velazquez returned earlier than expected, Ron Anderson, Gomez's agent, convinced Gomez to stay at least through Saratoga. Gomez said riding at Belmont was tough, because his wife and their two small children remained in California. But they have come to Saratoga for the summer.

"I'm excited even for my family to get to go see something a little different than what they're used to," Gomez said. "Now, I'm excited. We got a nice house for Saratoga. I'm excited to spend some time with my family and work and see how many races we can win."

Velazquez, who set a single-season record for wins at Saratoga in 2004 with 65, broke his shoulder and cracked a rib in a spill at Keeneland in April. He made it back in six weeks, though he only rode a few horses a day during the Belmont meet. His strategy was to gradually build his stamina back to be ready for this meet.

"He's riding as good right now as he ever has," said Pletcher. "It might have taken a few weeks to get his fitness level back, but he's in top form at the moment."

Prado is the defending champion at Saratoga, where he rode 44 winners last year. As the go-to rider for Richard Dutrow Jr., Bobby Frankel, and John Ward, Prado is never lacking for quality mounts. He said the presence of so many top riders is a motivating factor for him.

"Definitely this is going to give you a little push," Prado said. "In order to keep up with those guys, you got keep on top of it. I'm very happy that I ride for everybody."

While Prado has won riding titles at Belmont and Aqueduct, he admits there is something more special about winning at Saratoga.

"Definitely, it has a little more spark at Saratoga," Prado said in the Belmont jocks' room last week. "Don't get me wrong, winning this title is absolutely great. But at Saratoga everybody is there and you start from scratch and you go six weeks head to head. Every race counts; every day that goes by is important."

Typically, apprentice riders have struggled at Saratoga, but Leparoux is not your typical apprentice rider. He won his first race and went

3 for 20 overall here last year. He became the first apprentice to win titles at Keeneland and Churchill. Trainer Patrick Biancone, Leparoux's biggest supporter, said he doesn't see why Leparoux won't be successful here, as well.

"He's just a natural," Biancone said. "It's a gift. What makes Mozart Mozart? We don't know. We don't know why, we don't want to know why. What we want to do is keep going."

Desormeaux, Castellano, and Luzzi finished in a three-way tie for fifth in the Belmont standings with 36 wins apiece. Desormeaux, already a Hall of Famer at age 36, rode winners for 21 different trainers during the Belmont meet.

"There's plenty of talent here," he said. "I just want to ride and be happy, and if I'm riding I'm happy. I'm going to get out there and work hard and have fun, and hopefully the horsemen will allow me to have lots of fun at Saratoga."

Castellano has finished third in the standings the last two years at Saratoga. In each of those years, he has won five races on a single card. As the regular rider of Bernardini, who is being pointed to Saturday's Jim Dandy and next month's Travers, Castellano is hoping for a breakthrough meet.

Bridgmohan won 16 races at Saratoga in the summer of 2002, but only won 17 in 2003 and 2004 combined. As the first-call rider for Blasi at Churchill, Bridgmohan got on a lot of live stock, including a bevy of talented 2-year-olds such as Richwoman and Chace City.

"He wanted me to be there," Bridgmohan said. "So far, so good. I've won a bunch of quality races for him so far this summer, and he's got some nice young horses."

Trainer Nick Zito said he believes the depth of quality in the room should bring out the best in all of the riders.

"There's nothing like competition once in a while," said Zito, who plans to use Bejarano as much as he can. "It's nice for the owners and trainers to have choices. It just shows you how great Saratoga is."