(Jockey Javier Castellano / Coady Photography)
From the Gulfstream Park Media Team:
Five winters have passed since his reign as the Championship Meet’s dominant rider came to an end, but Hall of Famer Javier Castellano still comes to South Florida with the same level of enthusiasm.
This year, he also comes with a message.
“I need to have the opportunity and that’s what I’m looking for: building the relationship with the trainers and hoping they give me the opportunity and they support me a little bit,” Castellano said. “I know how to do this. I know how to win races. I know how to get it done. I just need the opportunity from the trainers and I’m not going to let them down.”
No one won more races at Gulfstream Park than Castellano during a five-year span between 2011-12 and 2015-16, when he led the jockey standings with an average of 114 wins and set a then-record 132 in 2013-14. The mark has been surpassed twice since, by Luis Saez (137) in 2017-18 and Irad Ortiz Jr. (140) last year.
Besides Castellano, only three other riders have led the jockey standings as many as three consecutive years – Ortiz (2018-19 to 2020-21), Jorge Chavez (1999-2001) and Jeff Fell (1977-79). Ortiz will be back this year looking to make it four straight.
“I’m very excited. I feel like Gulfstream is my home. I’ve had a lot of success at Gulfstream,” Castellano, 44, said. “Five titles in a row is a great achievement. I’m very lucky and fortunate to be in that spot.”
Castellano got off to a late start at last winter’s Championship Meet after having arthroscopic surgery to clean up some debris in his right leg, near the hip, last November. He didn’t ride between Nov. 15 at Aqueduct and his Feb. 17 return at Gulfstream, finishing with 15 wins and $599,560 in purses from just 66 mounts. Among his victories was the March 27 Ghostzapper (G3) aboard Eye of a Jedi, a race named for the Hall of Fame horse that helped launch Castellano’s career to new heights.
“It took a while to recover. That’s what they predicted. The doctor told me I had to be out for three or four months. I was out three months and a half and came back to ride late at Gulfstream,” Castellano said. “It’s been a long year for myself. Thank God I still win a lot of races … and I had a couple of Grade 1 winners, but not competitive with past years for me. I think it’s partly the momentum [after] the surgery, building up a little bit of my business again.”
Castellano gave brief consideration to staying in New York for the winter, but ultimately decided to follow the blueprint that has proven successful for many years.
“I feel like that’s the best way to do it. Thinking about more in the future, building my business and my relationship with trainers and look toward the spring and the summer and those big races,” Castellano said. “The only way you can build a relationship [and] be loyal with them is to go with the flow with the horses. When the horses go to Florida, I want to follow the horses and hopefully those maiden races help get the momentum building [and] the relationship with those trainers.
“I think that’s the best way to go. Why do I need to change something that’s been working for many years for myself?” he added. “I thought about it and I made my mind up that that’s the way to go, that it’s supposed to be like that. Go to Florida and ride the good horses.”
South Florida is where Castellano first landed when he came to the U.S. in 1997 and rode his first domestic winner before moving to the New York circuit in 2001. In the midst of his Eclipse run he set single-season career highs of 362 wins in 2013 and a then-record $28.1 million in purse earnings in 2015.
One new wrinkle at the Championship Meet is the addition of all-weather Tapeta to the dirt and turf courses, making Gulfstream the only track in North America to race on three different surfaces.
“I’m excited because we have a new surface with the [all-weather] track. It’s an opportunity for those horses to develop and I think I have more options,” Castellano said. “In New York, unfortunately, in the winter, we don’t have turf racing and we don’t have synthetic. We have only one dimension and it’s racing on the dirt, and you don’t know how the weather’s going to be. They only race four days a week.
“Hopefully we can find a nice 3-year-old to have for the year,” he added. ““I’m looking forward big time for this winter at Gulfstream. Gulfstream is amazing because that’s where I started riding horses when I first came to this country. It opened the door for me. It gave me the opportunity and look where I am now more than 20 years later.”
Castellano has won the Preakness (G1) twice, the Travers (G1) a record six times and 12 Breeders’ Cup races. He (2013-16) and fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey (2000-03) are the only jockeys to win four consecutive Eclipse Awards as champion rider. Castellano ranks second all-time with more than $364 million in purses earned and has won more than 5,400 races.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017, Castellano owns 463 career graded-stakes victories. Nine of them have come this year, including the Acorn (G1) and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1).
“You always have to compete and you always have to work hard. I don’t take anything for granted. Unfortunately I had a bump in the road in my career with the surgery but I’ve put it behind me. I feel 100 percent. The reason I did the surgery is because I want to extend my career. I want to ride more years ahead and the only way I can do that is to refresh my body and take care of my body. I’m looking ahead to another five, six, seven years, maybe 10. Who knows?” Castellano said. “I love this game and I love to keep doing what I’m doing. I love racing and I’m trying to enjoy it.”