07/22/2001 11:00PM

Top jocks battle to end

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ELMONT, N.Y. - An entertaining race for the Belmont jockey's title went down to the final furlong of the final race on the final day Sunday, with John Velazquez guiding Exaltado ($11) to a half-length victory over the Edgar Prado-ridden St. Sunset. The victory gave Velazquez the title, with 66 wins to Prado's 65.

The race capped a sensational three-day battle between Velazquez and Prado, who entered Friday's card tied at 58 wins. On Friday, Velazquez rode three winners to Prado's one. On Saturday, both had riding triples, so Velazquez entered the final card with a two-win lead. Each rider had eight mounts on Sunday.

Velazquez won the fourth race aboard Peg's Halo ($2.90), giving him a 65-62 lead with five races remaining. Prado then reeled off three consecutive victories - aboard Spavinaw ($5.30), Cyclorama ($4.60), and Alida ($7.40) - to forge a tie with two races left. Neither Prado nor Velazquez did well in the next race, the Evan Shipman Stakes, setting the stage for the grand finale.

In the ninth, an 1 3/8-mile claiming race on turf, Prado seemed to have St. Sunset, the 5-2 favorite, in good stalking position behind dueling leaders. But from the midway point around the turn until mid-stretch, he was blocked behind horses. Turning for home, Velazquez made a wide, sweeping move aboard Exaltado and gained the lead inside the three-sixteenth pole. By the time Prado got St. Sunset clear, it was too late and their late rush fell just short.

"I have to tip my hat to Johnny, he's an excellent rider," said Prado, who won last fall's Belmont title. "This was a lot of fun. I'm very proud of the horses I rode at this meet. I saw him going by and I thought I had a chance to get him because that horse likes to hang. It was a good experience, great for the racetrack and the fans."

It was the first Belmont riding title for Velazquez, who had won four titles at Aqueduct and one at Saratoga.

"Three weeks ago, if you would have told me the jockey title would have come down to the last race on the last day, I wouldn't have believed it," said Velazquez, who seemed to have a comfortable margin at that time. "Edgar made a run over a couple of weeks when it seemed like I couldn't do anything right."

Both riders are looking forward to the Saratoga meet, which begins Wednesday. Velazquez was enjoying a solid Saratoga meet last year - he rode 10 winners in the first 10 days - before a spill resulted in a broken collarbone forcing him to miss the remainder of the meet.

"It's all about having the right horses in the right races," Velazquez said. "Hopefully, I can stay healthy."

Dutrow wins trainer's title

While the race for top jockey was competitive, the trainer's battle was decided long ago, with Richard Dutrow Jr. copping top honors with 20 victories from 82 starters.

Bill Mott, who won two races Sunday, and James Bond finished in a dead-heat for second with 14 wins apiece. Todd Pletcher, Christophe Clement, and Allen Jerkens finished with 13 wins.

Handle up, attendance down

Although final figures won't be released until Friday, New York Racing Association officials project that total handle for the 55-day Belmont meet would be up 5 percent while on-track attendance will be down almost 6 percent.

Total handle, heading into the weekend, had been virtually even with last year.

Nelson uninjured in spill Diane Nelson was not seriously injured when she fell from her mount, Fight for Love, in Sunday's second race.

Nelson's left foot came out of the stirrup down the backside and in the course of her trying to put it back in, she was unseated and fell hard to the ground. Nelson, who was removed from the track via ambulance, said she had a little neck pain and "a shiner" under her right eye. She rode the next race aboard Sweet Caprice, her only other mount on the card.