04/04/2006 11:00PM

Velasquez should at least make jockey race interesting


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez pretty much sewed up the trainer and jockey titles when they combined for seven winners during the opening three days of the meet. Pletcher, who won eight races during that period, is coasting to his third straight local training crown. But Velazquez, Pletcher's first-call rider, while still the heavy favorite to win his second jockey championship in the last three years, could face a late challenge for the honor from Cornelio Velasquez.

Velasquez won seven races on Sunday and Monday to leapfrog Rafael Bejarano and move into second place in the standings, 12 wins behind Velazquez. Although Velazquez and Bejarano have already moved on to Keeneland for Friday's opener, Velasquez will hang around just long enough to have an outside chance of winning the title.

"We'll ride here four more days," said Richard Depass, Velasquez's agent, on Wednesday. "We'll be here today, tomorrow, Sunday, and the following Sunday. Other than that, we'll primarily be riding in New York, with three or four trips to Keeneland in the interim."

Velasquez, who registered five of his seven wins this week on the turf, is also the regular rider for the undefeated Showing Up. They'll join forces once again Saturday at Aqueduct in the Wood Memorial. Velasquez will also ride Teammate for trainer Allen Jerkens in the Grade 2 Comely Stakes the following weekend. Velasquez rode Teammate to victory in the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss Stakes here March 5.

A lot of travel ahead for Castro

Jockey Eddie Castro, eighth in the standings with 32 wins, figures to move up a few places before the meet ends on April 23. Castro will ride here regularly through the end of the session, although he will be at Tampa Bay Downs to ride in four stakes for trainer Bill Mott on Saturday and at Keeneland to handle stakes engagements for Marty Wolfson on April 14 and April 20.

Castro, who will ride regularly at Monmouth Park for the first time this summer, has also taken calls in stakes for Mott and Christophe Clement at Calder on April 29.

Apprentice Gabriel Saez, like Castro a native of Los Santos, Panama, will also ride out the rest of the meet. Saez, won 58 races during a 4 1/2-month span in Panama last season, according to his agent, Ruben Munoz, and will ride with the bug until November.

Strong Contender back to Kentucky

Strong Contender bid adieu to Gulfstream Park for the second time on Wednesday, when he headed back to Kentucky to prepare for the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes on April 15.

Strong Contender made a similar trip two weeks ago, when he was set to make his stakes debut in the Lane's End at Turfway Park. But before his van even reached its destination, trainer John Ward learned Strong Contender would not be able to get into the starting lineup, necessitating a change in plans that resulted in Strong Contender returning to his winter home at Gulfstream several days later.

Strong Contender, an easy winner of a first-level allowance race in his only start at the meeting, had one last tuneup over the local strip on Tuesday, working five furlongs in 1:00.60 under regular rider Edgar Prado.

"Edgar was pleased, and we were pleased," said Ward's wife, Donna, who remained here with Strong Contender while she awaits her husband's arrival at Keeneland.

Sharp Humor, runner-up to Barbaro in Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby, also departed south Florida for Kentucky on Wednesday.

Serena's Cat headlines turf allowance

Friday's program will again be dominated by turf racing, with five of the nine races slated for the grass. The main event is carded at five furlongs on turf under second-level allowance conditions for 3-year-old fillies.

Serena's Cat, undefeated in two previous tries on the turf, will be favored to handle the jump to the next level for trainer Bill Mott. A daughter of Storm Cat, Serena's Cat won her maiden by 2 1/2 lengths at Belmont Park during the fall before returning to register an allowance win going five furlongs here Feb. 18.

Rgirldoesn'tbluff, runner-up in the Ocala Breeders' Sprint Championship in her 3-year-old debut, and Cherokee Jewel, an impressive winner of her only start, are the ones to beat. Both will be making their turf debuts on Friday.