A Classic Season for Castellano

Javier Castellano celebrates Arcangelo's win in the Belmont Stakes | Sarah Andrew

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ARCADIA, CA – As Javier Castellano gets ready to ride three mounts on Breeders' Cup Saturday, the recently turned 46-year-old is amidst one of the best years of his career. And it almost never happened.

A pair of Breeders' Cup wins at the 2019 Championships put an exclamation point on the Hall of Famer's eighth straight season with more than $20 million in earnings. But, the year 2020, like it was for so many, was more about overcoming adversity for the native of Venezuela.

Castellano was the first jockey to test positive for COVID-19–he wasn't symptomatic, thankfully–during the beginning of the pandemic in March and was on the sidelines again after undergoing hip surgery at the end of the year.

“It was tough, not just for myself, but for everybody in the world in 2020,” Castellano said. “I only missed three months. And it seemed like it was forever.”

Castellano returned to action in 2021, but wasn't exactly welcomed back with open arms. Competing in pound for pound the deepest jockey colony in the nation in New York, Castellano rode 105 winners that season, good for $9,804,024 in earnings. After going just 13-for-142 at the prestigious Saratoga meeting, Castellano's career was suddenly at a crossroads.

Javier Castellano entered the Hall of Fame in 2017 | Horsephotos

“I was devastated. I was ready to give up,” said Castellano, a winner of four straight Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Jockey between 2013-16. “I just came back from everything and people didn't give me an opportunity. One moment I thought, 'I think this is it. I can't keep doing what I'm doing.' I was really really depressed.”

He continued, “They didn't care about who you are or what you did in the past. It's amazing. I was a Hall of Fame rider, a four-time leading jockey in the nation in back-to-back years, had six Travers then, 12 Breeders' Cups and won more than 5,000 races. And it didn't mean anything. You have to prove yourself and that you belong.”

Castellano picked himself up off the mat and hired longtime former racing official P.J. Campo to handle his book. He began to right the ship with 163 victories in 2022. By comparison, Castellano rode a total of 212 winners combined the previous two years.

How did he power his way through?

“Mentally, I had to be strong,” said Castellano, a married father of three. “A lot of discipline and dedication. Do the homework every single day. Regroup and try to be very positive.”

The momentum began to build for Castellano after he won three races on Saratoga's opening day card that summer.

“In 2022, we started rolling a little bit in Saratoga,” Castellano said. “I also went out of town for the right people and won some races. I knock a little bit and the door began to open a little here and there.”

Castellano is no longer the one doing the knocking this year.

He put to bed an 0-for-15 mark on the first Saturday in May with a 15-1 upset aboard Mage (Good Magic) in the GI Kentucky Derby, and, just five weeks later, secured his first GI Belmont S. victory with Arcangelo (Arrogate). Castellano became the first jockey to win two Triple Crown races on two different horses in the same year since Calvin Borel did so in 2009. He's won 16 graded races so far this year, including seven at the top level.

“Thank God, I've been very blessed and very fortunate to have one of the best years of my career,” Castellano said. “It was a great achievement to win the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, two Triple Crown races in the same year. I was always missing something on my resume.”

With Castellano's two Classic winners on a collision course this summer, he stuck with the recently retired Arcangelo, who followed up with a convincing win in the GI Travers S., the rider's record seventh victory in the 'Mid-Summer Derby.' The gray, unfortunately, was scratched from the Breeders' Cup Classic–a race Castellano won aboard the sensational Ghostzapper in 2004–earlier this week after developing a foot issue.

Javier Castellano celebrates aboard Ghostzapper following the 2004 Classic | Horsephotos

“He gave me an opportunity to regroup in my career, and, in my life, and enjoy these beautiful moments with my family,” Castellano said.

As for Arcangelo missing the Classic and now off to begin his career at stud at Lane's End, he said, “This is hard, but one decision I fully support. Arcangelo is safe and sound and that's all I can really think about. He has given me so much and I'm so blessed to have been part of the team.”

Castellano's mounts on Saturday's Championship program at Santa Anita include: GI Beverly D. S. winner and E.P. Taylor S. winner Fev Rover (Ire) (Gutaifan {Ire}) in the GI Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf; GII American Turf S. winner and narrow GI Saratoga Derby Invitational S. runner-up Webslinger (Constitution) in the GII Twilight Derby; and Time for Trouble (English Channel) in the 1 5/8-mile GII Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance S.

“It could be a good example for anybody,” Castellano concluded. “You never give up. When you want something in life, you have to work for it. When you work for it, you get it.”

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