04/05/2003 1:00AM

Umana chasing top riders

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - With jockeys Joe Judice and Jesus Castanon dueling for leading rider honors, it's easy overlook the fact that Juan Umana has quietly been having one of his best meetings in recent years.

Umana, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice of 1993, came into Saturday's program with 61 winners at the meet. while that's far fewer than the 95 and 90 wins of Judice and Castanon, it's Umana's best win total locally in several years. And what's most important to Umana, he is getting on a number of horses daily that have a chance to win, something that keeps his mind and riding sharp.

"The more horses I ride, the better," Umana said recently after the races.

"I like to stay active, keep going during the day. Riding a good number of horses every day keeps my mind in the game, keeps me thinking.

"When we move north to Delaware I do well there too and the purses are bigger, but the competition [for mounts] is so tough and the riding colony so deep that there are days when I may only ride two or three horses. You have to learn how to keep focused for when your races come up."

Nineteen of Umana's winners this meet were on the turf.

"It's more a thinking man's game on the grass, but things happen fast out there, too, and you have to be able to adapt quickly," he said. "The other day I was in behind the leaders, I thought I was in good shape, then all of a sudden three or four horses rushed by me on the outside. I thought, 'Oh boy, now what are you going to do?' But I just kept patient, waited for them to clear, then swung outside for some daylight, and ran the leaders down late.

"Sometimes you have to check a bit, wait for some clear room, and that may not look good - but the final quarter-mile is everything on the turf."

While Umana has been riding well for a number of outfits, he is especially thrilled by his success with Richard Ciardullo Jr., who currently is third in the trainer standings.

"Richie's given me a chance to ride a lot of his better horses and we've been fortunate to do well together," Umana said.

Soon Umana will be making plans to move back north to Delaware but he isn't in any hurry to leave Tampa Bay Downs.

"My agent [Lisa Ciardullo, Richard's sister] has done a great job this winter," he said. "She's gotten me not only a lot of business but quality business, outfits with nice horses.

"Hopefully, we can finish off strong here and get off to a good start up there [in Delaware]. If the summer's as good as the winter has been it will be a good year."

* Castanon last week became the first rider in the 77-year history of Tampa Bay Downs to have his mounts earn more than $1 million at the meet.

"It's pretty exciting," Castanon said. "I knew I was going to have a good meet but I never expected to do this well money-wise."