When Javier Castellano is inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on Friday, it will culminate his illustrious career but hardly mark the end. In some respects, the 39-year-old jockey acts as if he is just getting started.
“I will live the best moment of my life,” said Castellano of his enshrinement. “I've won a lot of races, thank God, and I'm healthy. I want to keep riding for a long time. I'd love to ride for many, many years more.”
Castellano swept the Eclipse Award as the leading rider in North America each of the last four years. If he does not make it five in a row, that would be partly his doing. He said he would like to follow in the footsteps of Mike Smith, who turns 52 on Aug. 10 and continues to compete at an elite level. With an eye toward such longevity, Castellano is starting to decrease his workload.
“He has accomplished everything he needed to,” said Mike Lakow, who became his agent last fall. “At this point, we just want to ride for the right people and the right stables and that will create the right horses.”
This emphasis on quality over quantity was evident during Gulfstream Park's championship meet. According to statistics available on Equibase, Castellano had 312 starts, 58 wins and $3,175,997 in purses for the meet that concluded earlier this year, a significant drop from his 466 mounts, 113 victories and $4,296,407 in earnings in 2016.
“I think he was happier and healthier and in a good frame of mind from not riding every race,” Lakow said. He noted that their decisions will be designed to “create something special for the spring and fall.”
Castellano booted home his first winner, Phone Man, on July 31, 1997, at old Calder Race Course in Miami. He insisted the accolades, even the Hall of Fame, will not cause him to lose his edge.
“When you love what you do,” he said, “you don't feel old, you don't feel tired.”
At the time of his Hall of Fame election, the native of Maracaibo, Venezuela, owned 4,664 wins and ranked fifth all-time with $276 million in earnings.
Castellano has a major ally in his wife, Abby, as he plots a strategy that he believes can allow him to possibly ride beyond the age of 50. They have three children.
“I think his body is the best judge of it all,” Abby said. “If he's mentally okay with it and physically, then I support whatever he decides to do.”
She added, “I don't think it will be eight or 10 (mounts) a day, but if he can ride five or six a day and keep getting quality mounts, I think he'll ride for quite a while.”
In a sense, Castellano must protect himself from himself. He is that heavily invested in what he does.
“His dedication to the sport and the profession is second to none,” said retired jockey Ramon Dominguez. “He is very focused and very driven to do the best he can. That's Javier.” Dominguez and John Velazquez will share the honor of presenting Castellano during Hall of Fame ceremonies.
Throughout his career, Castellano has dedicated his efforts to his father, Abel, who rode in Venezuela and inspired him. He is often seen looking to the heavens after major victories. Abel was murdered during a robbery attempt in Venezuela in 2000.
“He was my hero. He was my role model. I always looked up to him,” Castellano said. “When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for my father to come home, to open his bag and take out his saddle and clean his saddle.”
When Abel spoke, Castellano listened so intently that he still recalls every word.
“Son, work hard every single day and get on horses,” Abel told him. “The more you get on, the more you learn. This game is about practice, it's not about theory.”
That advice helped Castellano win seven Breeders' Cup races, including the Classic with Ghostzapper with his first Breeders' Cup mount in 2004. He boasts 10 riding titles on the demanding New York circuit. He has taken the Preakness twice, with Bernardini in 2006 and with Cloud Computing this year.
He wants badly to fill two significant holes in his resume, the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
“You always have some target,” he said. “My dream would be winning the Kentucky Derby. That's my goal for many years and, hopefully, one day I can say, 'Okay, I won the Derby.'“
Castellano sank to 0-for-11 in the Run for the Roses when Gunnevera never threatened and came in seventh in May. Todd Pletcher, a trainer Castellano frequently rides for, won the Derby for the second time when Velazquez was aboard Always Dreaming. Pletcher also won with Super Saver in 2010. Calvin Borel was assigned that mount.
Castellano said of the Derby, “I've been working hard, trying to do the right things, trying to find the right horse. Luck is a part of this game also. It's about getting the right horse and having the right trip.”
The Belmont has been even more exasperating. Castellano placed second three times. Stay Thirsty missed by three-quarters of a length in 2011. Commissioner fell short on a head bob in 2014; Destin barely succumbed to Creator's late rush by a nose last year.
Castellano's tremendous body of work, though, overshadows his Derby and Belmont defeats.
“Those races, as important as they are and as much as you want to win them, they will not define your career,” Dominguez said. “You don't need to win a specific race to be proud of your accomplishments and to feel fulfilled.”
A Hall of Fame plaque will serve as lasting testament that Castellano developed into the rider Abel only dreamed he could be.
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