“It's supposed to take you a long time to win five races, so that you get experience before you start being a bug rider,” said Ashley Castrenze.
The 19-year-old freshly-minted jockey is already almost there; she's ridden five races thus far and was victorious in the first four, finishing third in her fifth start. Yet Castrenze's near-perfect record, likely an unprecedented feat for an apprentice, hasn't compromised her humility. She's thankful to trainer Tom Proctor for the opportunities he has given her and for believing in her from the very beginning.
“Tom always stuck with me and always gave me confidence,” she said. “He's done everything for me. He gave me a lot of confidence to get me to where I am now, and he put me on my first two winners.”
Castrenze is the daughter of former jockey Jackie Acksel and grew up in the racing industry. She and her twin sister were raised on a farm in Maryland, lending a hand in their mother's pinhooking business and riding as much as possible.
“When they came out of the hospital, they had a miniature horse under the Christmas tree waiting for them,” said Acksel. “That was the start of it. They were actually riding before they could walk.”
Both girls enjoyed competing off-track Thoroughbreds in the jumpers and were able to trade their labor at horse shows for extra chances to compete.
“They could fly around there,” remembered Acksel. “They worked really hard so they could afford to go to shows, and they rode for other people at the shows. Ashley wanted to do the Grand Prix, but it just takes so much money to get to that level.”
The girls' father died, leading Acksel to return to training horses at the racetrack. When Castrenze turned 16, she began galloping a couple of horses for her mother and stepfather. Shortly thereafter, she picked up a job with a local trainer at Monmouth Park.
“You know, I get paid to ride horses here; when I go show, all I do is spend money,” Castrenze said to her mother. “I always thought that I was going to have something to do with horses, but never did I think that I would be a jockey up until I started galloping horses.”
In 2014, the young exercise rider moved to Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, where she took a giant step forward in accepting a job galloping for Proctor.
“Going from riding for a little trainer to a big outfit like Tom, his assistants were really hard on me,” remembered Castrenze. “But they taught me a lot.
“I used to get run off with all the time in the morning. I had a hard time getting on some of the horses that the other guys could get on because they were really strong. I was like, 'there's no way I'll ever be able to ride a horse like this.' Six months later, I could gallop them.”
Castrenze's first two winners were both trained by Proctor, and each held a unique significance. The first win, a 3 ½-length score aboard heavy favorite Sister Pat, was special because she had been working with the filly for a long time.
“It was such a big deal to me. I really liked that horse,” said Castrenze. “I had been getting on her since she was a baby, when she first started learning how to gallop. I breezed her a bunch of times, and I was really excited. She'd only run one time before, and I couldn't ride her that time because she was a first-time starter. I was lucky she didn't win that day.”
Her second win came aboard Oldstone Farmhouse, owned by one Proctor's biggest clients, Glen Hill Farm. The gelding went off as the second choice in a field of five and led all the way from gate to wire in a maiden claimer.
Castrenze followed Proctor north to Fair Hill Training Center, which led to another victory. She picked up a mount at nearby Penn National for trainer Mark Reid. My Juliana, Castrenze thought, had a chance to run “a good second or third.”
“I didn't know she went off at even money, because when I left the room she was like the third choice,” said the rider. “It was a shocker. Going down the lane, she just was passing horses so easily and I hadn't even moved on her yet. I was like 'Oh my gosh, what is happening!'”
Her fourth victory was a front-running score aboard another Mark Reid trainee, Hauler, last Saturday at Penn National, and Castrenze's lone third-place finish came on a Tom Proctor mount at Monmouth Park on Sunday.
Castrenze's streak has been noticed in the horse racing world. Rajiv Maragh, a rider with four Breeders' Cup victories to his name, took to Twitter on Sunday about her undefeated record.
While Castrenze acknowledges that the winning likely won't last forever, the young jockey is determined to work hard and enjoy the ride. She plans to ship to as many local tracks as possible this summer, following Proctor's horses anywhere he sends them.
Though her mother is still nervous about watching her daughter ride, she knows the strong-willed Castrenze would do it with or without her permission. Remembering her own passion for the sport, Acksel said: “I'm so excited and happy for her. I was actually thinking maybe I should make another comeback and ride a race with her!”
Castrenze didn't jump at that idea, though she remembers fondly watching her mother make a comeback several years ago. Acksel returned to the saddle in 2011 after a 17-year break to join forces with a temperamental gelding; she got along well with the horse in the mornings, and went on to win over $200,000 aboard him over the next couple years.
Her sister Emily has followed her footsteps to begin galloping at the track, taking a job with Arnaud Delacour at Fair Hill. While mom is hoping Emily goes to college before considering a career as a jockey, she couldn't be happier for her daughters.
“I'm extremely proud,” said Acksel. “Both my daughters have an incredible work ethic.”
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