When it comes to breaking down the unprecedented success he has had in the biggest race on racing's biggest stage, Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano puts it in the simplest terms.
“I guess, to me, it was just meant to be. I've been in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I've been very fortunate and very lucky.”
Castellano will be aboard Long Lake Stable, Madaket Stables, Thomas Coleman and Doheny Racing Stable's Looking At Bikinis in Saturday's Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers, the centerpiece of the Saratoga summer and a race the 41-year-old Venezuelan has won a record six times including last year aboard Catholic Boy.
His impact on a race widely regarded as an extension of the Triple Crown, first run in 1864 and predating the Kentucky Derby (1875), Preakness (1873) and Belmont Stakes (1867), is not lost on Castellano, a winner of more than 5,100 races and $333 million in purse earnings in a 23-year career.
“It's unbelievable. I have to thank God for giving me the opportunity and the ability to ride some of the top horses in the country. I'm very grateful and blessed,” he said. “You see the history of the Travers, 150 years, so many great, great riders have come through. Angel Cordero, he was the leading rider here for 15 years and he won one Travers [Chief's Crown, 1985]. I'm just thankful and blessed to be able to be here and compete with the best jockeys in the country.”
Castellano's first Travers victory came in 2006 on Grade 1 Preakness and Grade 2 Jim Dandy winner Bernardini, who would go on to beat older horses in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and run second in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic and be named 3-year-old male champion. Favored at 1-5, Bernardini galloped by 7 ½ lengths.
Twice, Castellano has won the Travers in back-to-back years. He took the 2010 edition by a nose on Afleet Express, sent off at 7-1, then repeated in 2011 with a 1 ¼-length decision on 2-1 favorite Stay Thirsty. Castellano tied fellow Hall of Famers Eddie Arcaro, Braulio Baeza, Pat Day and Jimmy McLaughlin with his fourth Travers win aboard 19-1 long shot V.E. Day in 2014, also by a nose.
“Bernardini was an unbelievable horse, and we had high expectations for him. He was a great horse,” Castellano said. “Afleet Express, what a finish. It was almost a dead heat. It took forever in the winner's circle to decide who won. It could have been a dead heat. V.E. Day came from way back and won the race. So many horses have given me so many great memories. I've been in the right time and the right place and surrounded by the right people.”
Castellano's most memorable Travers came in 2015 when he upset Triple Crown champion American Pharoah on Keen Ice, who was dismissed at odds of 16-1. Castellano had never ridden Keen Ice but signed on after Kent Desormeaux opted to ride Texas Red for his brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux. Texas Red ran fifth, while Keen Ice would win just once more in 13 subsequent starts, taking the Grade 2 Suburban in 2017.
“It was an incredible feeling. You look at the race on paper and you think, 'Who can beat that horse?' American Pharoah was basically undefeated and he won the Triple Crown,” Castellano said. “He was the only speed in the race, and the more you looked at it you're thinking, 'It's hard to beat that horse.' You don't expect to win the race, and you end up winning the race. Unbelievable.”
Looking At Bikinis, who fetched $240,000 as a 2-year-old in training last April, made just one start as a juvenile, romping by 5 ¾ lengths in a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight in September at Belmont Park. The runner-up, Cutting Humor, won the Grade 3 Sunland Derby and ran 10th in the Kentucky Derby this year.
It was nearly 10 months before Looking At Bikinis would run again, making a six-wide move in upper stretch and edging clear late to a half-length optional claiming victory going a mile June 27 at Belmont. Grade 3-placed Not That Brady was second, with Pasco runner-up Overdeliver third.
Favored for the third straight race, Looking At Bikinis made his stakes debut last out in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin July 26 at Saratoga, contested over a muddy and sealed main track. Brushed at the start, he set the pace on the inside but wound up third behind stablemate Highest Honors and Endorsed, both entered in the Travers.
Castellano and Looking At Bikinis, listed at 10-1 on the morning line, will break from post position 9. All 12 Travers horses will carry 126 pounds.
“I think he's a good horse and he's just starting to develop. He's a young horse. He's only run three times, and out of those three he's shown a lot of potential,” Castellano said. “The last race was a muddy track, they sealed the track, it was a funny day. He ended up on the lead and the rail wasn't the right place to be. I ended up in that position and he didn't like it. It was the first time he went two turns; everything was against him.
“There will be a little more speed in this race so he doesn't have to be on the lead. It's now his second time going two turns and I think he's going to handle it better mentally and physically. He has a lot of potential and he's shown me he belongs with this group,” he added. “I like the horse a lot. We'll have to figure out how to win the race. I know there's a lot of tough horses in there. A race like this is supposed to be tough, but that's the thing about this game. Anything can happen.”
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