Javier Castellano at Kentucky Downs on Thursday (Jennie Rees)
Derby-Winning Jockey Riding High After Having No Business Two Years Ago
By Tim Wilkin for Kentucky Downs
FRANKLIN, Ky.— The 2023 resume for jockey Javier Castellano would be a career for just about anyone else who rides horses for a living.
So far, he has won the Kentucky Derby. The Belmont Stakes. The Travers Stakes. The Jockey Club Gold Cup. There are more big races to come, starting this weekend at the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs.
If you would have peeked into a crystal ball in the summer of 2021 and told Castellano this was all waiting for him, he would have called for an investigation. Or a psychiatrist.
“I would not have believed you,” Castellano said with a smile while sitting on a bench outside the jockey’s room at Kentucky Downs. “I would have said that’s crazy.”
Two years ago, there were few smiles from the personable Castellano, who was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2017.
Despite four Eclipse Awards (2013-16) as the nation’s best jockey and more than 5,000 wins – 12 of them Breeders’ Cup races – Castellano wasn’t able to get the big mount, wasn’t getting the call from the big barns.
It’s nothing that he did wrong. Castellano just had a brutal 2020.
In March, he was the first rider to test positive for COVID-19 and that ended up costing him six weeks. Eight months later, he had surgery near his hip and that cost him three months.
When you aren’t riding, you lose business. Horse racing is notorious for being a sport that lives on the mantra “what have you done for me lately?” When you come back off a layoff, you are starting all over again. It doesn’t matter who you are. Or who you were.
Castellano, originally from Venezuela, is extremely proud of his body of work, but in the summer of 2021, when a lot of his business had dried up, his career was at a crossroads.
That rang true on Aug. 28, the day of the prestigious Travers at Saratoga.
He was sitting in the living room in his summer home in Saratoga and it didn’t mean a darn thing that he had six Travers trophies to show off. Castellano did not have a mount in the 2021 race; he only had one ride on the whole card.
“I didn’t stay after that, I went home,” he said.
To an empty house. His wife, Abby, and their three kids had gone back home to Long Island. Castellano watched the race alone. And thought. A lot.
“I watched the race. I was lonely. Depressed as hell,” he said.” I was thinking about how tough this game is and how you can’t take anything for granted. I thought my career was done.”
The pity party didn’t last long, and Castellano dragged himself off the mat and got ready to fight. In September – after winning just 13 races at the Saratoga meet – Castellano hired former racing executive P.J. Campo to be his agent and the two went back to work.
They hit the shedrow and knocked on doors. Slowly, those doors began to open.
“It’s not like he forgot how to ride,” Campo said. “It’s just getting the right opportunities and the right barns. The guy is a Hall of Famer. He can ride with anybody out there.”
Business picked up in 2022 and he won 163 races. Combined, that number was 212 wins for 2020 and 2021.
“If someone says you can’t do something, you want to prove them wrong,” Campo said. “It just takes time.”
Castellano has kicked that door in this year. He won the Derby, the world’s most popular horse race, for the first time – in his 16th try – with Mage. Three days after that, he was throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. He had been offered that luxury before, but he told Jessica Steinbrenner, daughter of the late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, that he would only take her up on the offer if he won the Kentucky Derby.
He was more than happy to take a trip to the Bronx after the magical ride on Mage.
“Threw a strike,” he said, beaming.
Five weeks after the Derby, Castellano was riding high again at Belmont Park, his home track. He broke his Belmont Stakes maiden when he rode Arcangelo to victory. That was his first Belmont win after 14 tries. Two weeks ago, he won his record seventh Travers with Arcangelo and then added the Jockey Club Gold Cup a week later with Bright Future, an aptly named horse for the 45-year-old Castellano.
“It has been an amazing year,” Castellano said. “I have been very lucky. People have given me another opportunity. It’s like any athlete, you get a bump in your career and things get a little slow. I reviewed the tape and thought, ‘what did I do wrong?’ I didn’t do anything wrong. People might think, ‘he’s not going to be able to come back, he won’t be the same that he was years ago.’ They question you.”
Castellano has answered with determination and hard work.
Physically, he is in the best shape of his life. He is going to keep riding for as long as he can be productive. The way things have gone this year, that might be for a while yet.
“Javier knows what he is doing,” Campo said. “He is a brilliant rider. When you talk about races and horses, he knows exactly where to be at the right time and how to be there. You really see that in the big races.”
Castellano will be running in big races this weekend at Kentucky Downs. On Saturday, he is on the Mike Maker-trained Therapist, the 7-2 morning-line favorite in the $1.7 FanDuel Kentucky Turf Cup (G2); Bat Flip (20-1) for Todd Pletcher in the $1 million Exacta Systems Franklin-Simpson (G2), and Olympic Runner (20-1) for Mark Casse in the $1 million Ainsworth Turf Sprint (G2).
Casse and Castellano have teamed up for seven wins in 43 starts this year.
“We have seen lots of good riders go through stages where they have struggled,” Casse said. “He doesn’t have anything to prove to anybody. He is pure class and a gentleman. You always want to see good people do good things.”
On Sunday, Castellano will pilot Cynane (5-1 second choice on the morning line) in the $500,000 Global Tote Juvenile Fillies for Tom Morley.
Morley was one of the trainers who gave Castellano opportunities when he came back after the hip surgery. In 2022, Castellano rode 14 wins for Morley in 62 starts; they are four for 30 this year.
Morley said he saw it as a gigantic opportunity for his barn to get a rider of Castellano’s ability to ride. It has paid off. Castellano has ridden Cynane in both her starts, including a try at Royal Ascot in June. They finished 10th in the Group 2 Queen Mary.
“When Javier was going through a quieter period, it really afforded me the opportunity to work closely with P. J. and got him on some live horses in my barn,” the New York-based Morley said. “I would like to think we were part of his resurgence from the beginning. Javier has had a helluva year and I would honestly be very disappointed if he doesn’t get very close to winning the Eclipse this year.”
As Castellano basked in the Kentucky sun, fans came up along the fence. They knew him. They wanted to get a minute or two with him. He enjoyed that. Maybe he thought back to that dark August afternoon in 2021 when he contemplated walking away. That seems like a long time ago now.
“I could have given up,” he said. “Thank God I was very positive and dedicated and I worked hard. I went out and found the horses.”