Saul Castellanos, a top assistant to trainer Mark Hennig and a recent winner of a Thoroughbred Industry Employee Award, said of his life and career, “I live the American Dream plus.”
“Plus is like more than I thought,” he explained. “This country gives you opportunities and it is up to you to take that. I took every single one.”
Castellanos learned the ways of horses and other animals as he and nine siblings grew up on a farm in Jalisco, Mexico. He said the Mexican dream is to live the American dream.
“We want to do great for our family and for ourselves,” he said. “Everyone wants to come to this country to do better.”
Castellanos acknowledges his desire for a better life initially led him to enter the United States illegally when he visited his brother, Rafael, then an employee of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. He soon entered the racing industry as a hotwalker and gradually climbed the ladder in the last 20 years with Hennig, who is based at Belmont Park in New York but sends a string of horses to Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., each winter.
“To be a Latino in this country, people say there is a lot of discrimination,” Castellanos noted. “I never felt that way. Never.”
He combines a strong work ethic with an engaging personality. He is someone who laughs easily.
“My clients love him. The help loves him,” Hennig said. “I refer to him as the Mayor of Belmont Park. There is nobody who doesn't know him. Anywhere we go, we get off a van at Gulfstream and it's the same situation. He's got one of those magnetic personalities that you want to be around.”
In a world in which loyalty is seemingly fleeting, Hennig and Castellanos share a bond they both treasure. While Castellanos was recently preparing for a winter campaign at Gulfstream Park, Hennig saddled three winners over two days in New York.
“You don't need me,” Castellanos joked by phone.
“Yes, we do,” Hennig assured him.
According to Castellanos, he arrives at the barn before 5 a.m. each day. Within an hour, he has assessed the condition of each horse and checked every leg before that horse leaves the barn to train.
“If I see something I don't like even a little bit,” he said, “the horse doesn't train and I call my boss.” Even when no issues are observed, the two compare notes by phone as many as seven times a day.
“You need that set of eyes that have been molded by your own. Probably no one knows the way I think the way he does,” Hennig said. “I feel like it's a great extension of me. Hopefully, my clients value that also.”
Castellanos' presence through the last two decades brings a welcome consistency to the operation that owners surely appreciate. Since Hennig left Lukas to begin training on his own at the end of 1992, his horses have won more than 100 graded stakes and earned in excess of $70 million. His runners have never failed to bank at least $1 million per year for a full season.
Clients quickly recognize that Hennig and his top assistant enjoy far more than the typical employer-employee relationship.
“His loyalty to me means the world. I value him not only as a great employee, but as a friend,” Hennig said. “I tell him that all the time.”
The nature of racing, with electrifying highs almost inevitably followed by crushing lows, severely tests relationships. Hennig and Castellanos have withstood various tribulations.
“I've been through everything with him, ups and downs,” Castellanos said. “Listen, I'm family. I saw his kids grow up. I've been with the family forever.”
Castellanos maintains steady communication with Hennig's five children. When Castellanos' father, Jose, died in February, 2014 and was buried in Texas, the trainer arranged for food to be delivered to the grieving family.
“He's been there for me all the time,” Castellanos said. “I don't have words to say how I feel about working for Mark.”
Castellanos, who became a proud United States citizen in 2012, indicated he has never been tempted by other career opportunities. “There are a lot of things out there, but not like here. No way,” he said. “I feel like a cat. If he fired me, I'd be outside the barn.”
He said it meant “everything” to him to win a Thoroughbred Industry Employee Award for Leadership in Racing. The awards are presented by Godolphin to recognize those whose contributions might otherwise go overlooked.
“We need these things in our industry so people can believe in us,” Castellanos said. “We are not killers. We are good people.”
He dedicated his award to the late Jose, a father who always believed in him.
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