Born to Ride: Javier Castellano
by Ed Gray
Photo by Coglianese Photos
Thirty years have passed, but Javier Castellano recently recalled a favorite childhood memory with all the excitement and passion that would inspire a 5-year-old boy to become one of the most successful and celebrated jockeys in the world.
A broad smile spread across his face and his eyes darted as he recounted the cherished memories of Friday nights in the Castellano household when he would be awakened from a sound sleep by the heightened anticipation of his father coming home from work.
For young Javier Castellano, he would truly start dreaming after he woke up, after his father walked through the door of their home in Venezuela. Abel Castellano was living his son’s dream of one day following in his footsteps and becoming a jockey.
“They raced once a week and only on Friday night, from 6 to 9:30. I was a little kid and was put to bed early, but I’d always wake up when my dad was coming home, because I was so excited,” Castellano said. “I’d wait for him and when he came home, I’d open his bag and take out his boots and clean them. I’d dress up like a jockey and I’d clean his boots at 10:30 at night.”
Castellano moved his hands in a scrubbing motion to demonstrate his cleaning technique and the passion of a young boy who couldn’t wait to be just like dad.
Dad and his mother, Neila, had other ideas for their son.
“It was always my dream to be a jockey, but my family didn’t want me to be a jockey because it’s so dangerous. My dad had a couple of spills and all that stuff, so they didn’t want me to be in the same spot,” Gulfstream Park’s leading rider said. “I had to decide what to do with my life.”
Resigned that his parents wouldn’t allow him to be a jockey, the native of Maracaibo, Venezuela turned to baseball.
“I had a passion for baseball. I wanted to be a baseball player, big time. I went to Little League. I was the best baseball player on the field. The only problem was when we stepped up every year, my friends got bigger and stronger and heavy and I was always a little guy and skinny. They would always put me on the sidelines. The bigger kids would hit home runs and I would get a hit,” said Castellano, who played second and third base. “When I was 13, I decided not to go any more to play baseball. I decided to go back to racing.”
His father eventually gave Castellano his blessing to ride, but not before finishing high school.
In 1996, Castellano rode in his first race at Santa Rita in his hometown, finishing off the board aboard Ronnie Boy. Three months later, he rode his first winner, The Forty, amidst controversy beyond the 18-year-old novice’s control. Two weeks earlier, Castellano rode The Forty, and even the inexperienced rookie knew something was very wrong with his mount.
“They were doing some illegal stuff in Venezuela some times. They doctored the horse and gave it medicine. He was the favorite. When he got to the paddock he was very down. He broke from the gate last and was never in contact with the field,” Castellano recalled.
The trainer would eventually be suspended, but not before The Forty ran again. Now trained by the owner, Castellano was given the return mount with the promise that the horse was good enough to give him his first win. Under the scrutiny of authorities who were still investigating the previous race, Castellano did indeed ride The Forty into the winner’s circle.
“He broke on top and in the stretch and drew off by 10,” Castellano said. “It was pressure for me because of the situation.”
Shortly thereafter, Castellano moved on to Caracas, where he rode 49 winners in four months, before heading to South Florida to ride at Calder in June 1997. Dubis Chaparro, who is now a trainer in South Florida, served as Castellano’s agent and support system. On his first day of riding on July 31, 1997, Castellano rode the David Braddy-trained Phone Man to victory in the third race and would win another race later on the program. The new apprentice came back the next day to win three races and on Aug. 9. 1997, he collected his first stakes victory aboard the Luis Olivares-trained Governor Hicks in the $75,000 Dr. Fager.
After winning riding titles at Calder and Hialeah, Castellano ventured to the New York circuit on Jan. 1, 2001 with agent Steve Adika. He made an immediate impact and in 2003 would begin to assume a national presence with new agent Mike Kelly.
Big Break into the Big Time
Castellano started breezing horses for the late Bobby Frankel with the hope of getting a mount or two from the Hall of Fame trainer’s well-stocked stable. He got lucky with Ghostzapper, who was hardly impressive in the morning.
“He was kind of a lazy horse in the morning. He’d breeze 1:03, 1:04, and you had to ride a little bit,” said Castellano, recalling that then-leading rider Jerry Bailey turned down the mount. “Bobby said, ‘You like him?’ I said, ‘Sure, I love him.’ The first time I rode him, he won. He won, won, won. He was the best horse I’ve ridden in my life. He was a different horse in the morning than he was in the afternoon.”
Ghostzapper was undefeated in 2004, capping his Horse of the Year campaign with a triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), providing his jockey with his first Breeders’ Cup win aboard his first Breeders’ Cup mount.
“He was the only horse I’ve seen in my life that won Grade 1 at six furlongs and Grade 1 at a mile and a quarter,” said Castellano, declaring Ghostzapper to be the best horse he’s ever ridden.
A year later, Castellano scored his first success in a Triple Crown race aboard Bernardini in the 2005 Preakness Stakes, but his thrill of victory was tempered considerably by the tragic breakdown of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro shortly after the start of the race.
“You don’t want to see a horse hurt like that, but at the same time you want to celebrate your success,” Castellano said. “There were a lot of emotions at that moment. It was my first Triple Crown win.”
Castellano, fortunately, was able to properly celebrate after Bernardini’s subsequent victories in the Travers (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) that clinched the 3-year-old Eclipse Award title.
High-profile stakes victories cemented Castellano’s standing among the leading riders in New York, but it wasn’t until he hired Matt Muzikar as his agent in 2008 that he has been able to achieve a standing among the riding elite.
“I’m very blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to work with my agent, Matt Muzikar. He’s the guy I give all the credit to. He puts me on the best horses,” Castellano said. “Nobody sees Matt because he’s behind the scenes. Every time we’re in the winner’s circle all the credit goes to the jockey.”
Castellano, who rode his 3000th winner last season at Gulfstream, is coming off a blockbuster 2012 season, during which he rode the winners of 325 races and more than $22 million in purses. He set a Gulfstream record last season by riding 112 winners.
Castellano, who didn’t have a jockey school available to him in Venezuela, has molded his riding style over the years while observing others.
“I learned a lot from Jose Santos, the way he rode the grass. I learned from Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, Edgar Prado and John Velazquez,” he said. “Every single day you learn from other jockeys. I learned a lot in New York.”
A significant contributing factor to his growing success has been his fairly recent association with Todd Pletcher, the defending nine-time training champion at Gulfstream.
“It’s big. I’ve ridden for Todd a long time. He always has given me a couple horses to ride and we have been very successful,” said Castellano, who is once again atop the jockey standings this season at Gulfstream. “Lately, the last three years, he opened the barn to me and given me a lot of opportunity.”
Success has hardly made Castellano complacent. The 35-year-old father of daughters Kayla (7) and Sienna (4) and son Brady (3 months) is still driven to succeed.
“I look to ride 10 or 15 years more. In the meantime, I want to win every single race. I want to win the Kentucky Derby; I want to win the Belmont; hopefully, I can win the Triple Crown,” said Castellano, whose wife, Abby, is the daughter of Terry Meyocks, the national director of the Jockey’s Guild. “Hopefully, one day, they’ll call me and say, ‘Javier, we want to put you in the Hall of Fame.’”
The immediate goal is to win the Kentucky Derby.
“I’m looking to win the Kentucky Derby. That’s my dream. Hopefully, it will happen this year. I have a lot of high-potential horses,” said Castellano, whose younger brother, Abel Jr., is the leading rider on the Maryland circuit.
Castellano will continue to strive to meet his goals with the unwavering desire to ride that he felt 30 years ago while cleaning his father’s boots on a Friday night.
“I was born to be a jockey,” he said.