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Chat with Javier Castellano – The Daily Gazette

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Javier Castellano won’t be riding the Travers on Saturday, but if you want stories about winning the most important race at Saratoga Racecourse, you come to him.

That’s because the 44-year-old Venezuelan Hall of Famer has done it six times, a record that won’t be approached anytime soon, as 57-year-old Hall of Famer Mike Smith, is the only active jockey with at least four Travers wins, and then 50-year-old Hall of Famer Johnny Velazquez is the only one still riding to have two.

Remarkably, Castellano won six times out of just 13 Travers mounts, a ridiculous 46.1% strike rate, with two second-place finishes as well.

He suffered a significant drop in performance at the Saratoga meet last year after a 2020 calendar year that included a three-week layoff due to COVID-19 while the pandemic was still on the rise, followed by had hip surgery in November of this year. it cost him another three months.

He gradually rebuilt his business to the point where Castellano was one of the winningest jockeys in the current Saratoga meet ahead of Thursday’s card, although graduated-stakes mounts were hard to come by.

So he won’t be part of Travers’ next story, but Castellano spoke to The Daily Gazette on Wednesday to hear about some of the good things he’s experienced in that race.

Question: Needless to say, we’re going to name six here, but in a broader sense, what does it take to have a record like that and what does it mean for your career to be able to say, “I won six Travers”?

Answer: It’s amazing, you know? I am very lucky to be in this place. If you think about the history of racing in Saratoga, it’s been over 150 years, and a single jockey has won six Traverses. After a few years, you say, “Oh, my God, I won six Travers.” Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people have helped me and trusted me to ride the best horses in the country.

You look at the jockeys who have won the most Traverses in history, you put Pat Day, Braulio Baeza, Mike Smith, Jimmy McLaughlin and Eddie Arcaro. Only four jockeys with three.

Q: You weren’t always on the best horse and you always found a way to win, but your first in 2006, Bernardini, was clearly the best horse, and the betting public had it at 1-5. How confident were you in this race?

A: When the horse won the Jim Dandy, he did it by 10, 15 [nine] lengths. The stallion, AP Indy, he can run all day. The way he played, the way he won the Preakness and the Jim Dandy, believe me, I had a lot of confidence. It was my first Travers, and I was really happy. I picked up the phone and called my mom and explained to her, because she doesn’t know much about it. I said, ‘Look, mom, at least I can say I won the Travers, one of the biggest races of the 3-year-old and summer campaign.’ Then you win another, and another, and those are long races…”

Q: Well, let’s talk about one of them, the next one, Afleet Express in 2010, which was also one of the two you won by a nose. At 7-1, on Fly Down.

A: Outside of his prep, I really liked him, because he raced in the Jim Dandy and finished third. I had a little trouble crossing the back a bit, and it came in late. I remember I got off the horse and said [trainer] jimmy [Jerkens], “I think we have an opportunity to win the Travers this year.” I had to check the back a bit when I went through the half mile and lost momentum, then he started to pick it up and he finished really well.

I said to Jimmy, ‘Don’t get me off the horse, because I think I can win the Travers.’ Then I thought it was tied, and it took a while to get the result. It could have gone either way, and luckily it worked my way.

Q: Let’s jump into 2011 and stay thirsty. Once again you were on the favorite

A: It was a small field, and the horse was coming from behind and was by far the best horse in the race. It was a great day for [owner] Mike Repole, because they had Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty. They thought of the horses for the same spot and decided to go with Uncle Mo at seven-eights in the King’s Bishop and keep Stay Thirsty for the longest distance because he was a hard-working horse. They could have been opposite, or in the same place.

Q: Meanwhile, Stay Thirsty was sired by Bernardini. Did he remind you of Bernardini in any way other than winning the Travers?

A: Yeah, you feel a little emotional, because I was riding the father, now I’m riding the son. I guess I’m getting old [laughing]. Similar styles. Bernardini was a more tactical horse, close to the rhythm. Stay Thirsty was a little more strenuous, but at an almost similar stride, and I was confident, small field, and I have the best horse in the race.

Q: You didn’t have to wait long for your next three, with VE Day he was 19-1, and another nose at Wicked Strong, both coached by Jimmy Jerkens.

A: I remember two different emotions. I was so happy to win the race, but you could see Jimmy Jerkens, his face… Wicked Strong was the best horse in the race. The other jockey [Rajiv Maragh] made a small premature gesture, and I took advantage of it. My horse has come a long way. Before the wire, I think I got up a bit, because I knew I had won the race. And Rajiv said, “What do you think?” I said, “No, I won.” “Really?! It didn’t go far.” “No, I won.”

Q: Let’s go back to Keen Ice versus American Pharoah in 2015. Walk me through the mechanics of the race, and there were some weird circumstances, because Joel Rosario was supposed to be on Frosted but got injured 45 minutes before the race, so Kiaran McLaughlin had found another jockey.

A: At some point we all handicap the race before the race, and you get an idea of ​​what the pace will be. We didn’t see any rhythm at all. Everyone looked and said, “Wait, looks like American Pharoah is going to be in the lead, galloping and winning the race.” We thought, “Well, I have to do something. And Jose Lezcano [replacing Rosario] went after American Pharoah early and tried to win the race. These horses hooked up early and went all the way to quarter pole. Fortunately, my horse comes from behind and I raced with great patience. I thought, “I’m not going to hunt, because I think I’m going to ruin my race.” If I can do it, I can do it, but if I can’t, it’s part of the game.

The closer I get, “I’ll get there, I’ll get there.” When I get home, I’ll pass.

Q: How cool was the celebration as Donegal Racing won the Travers which was great for them but they also beat American Pharoah.

A: There were a lot of emotions, because everyone was in shock. No one in the world thought that horse was going to be beaten. It was quiet, a bit, for a while. But then there was a lot of celebration, because Donegal, Jerry Crawford, it’s a big band. At the same time, you can feel the people in the gallery silent… and silent. In shock, like, ‘What happened?’ I could see Baffert [trainer Bob Baffert] devastated. This horse cannot lose. But at the same time, it was my fifth Travers. I was so happy.

Q: OK we have one more, Catholic Boy was 7-1 in 2018, you were sort of chasing Mendelssohn and you ended up beating him, and Catholic Boy was an interesting and versatile horse who was also a Grade I winner on the turf heads inside.

A: There was a lot of discussion about whether it could go from grass to dirt. They let me work the horse three times. The first time, I liked it very much. The second time I said [trainer] jonathan [Thomas], “Hmm, I think I can win the Travers this year.” He said, “Let’s win it together, because I think the horse is doing phenomenally. You don’t see anything different on dirt or grass. I rode this horse on grass, nice and smooth. I worked the horse on the dirt, and he did a really good, solid job. He was working [five furlongs] in 59 [seconds] and change, galloping in 1:11. Few horses can do that. I said, ‘Whoa, that’s a serious horse.’

I send him out of the gate, we connect a bit with Mendelsson at the first corner. I was second, second, half length, half length all the way, I asked him at the quarter pole [makes smooching sound] …oh, my God, the acceleration. Before the eighth pole, this horse was rolling.

Q: Is there any disappointment that you are not in Travers this year?

A: Of course, but you can see that everything is going in the right direction. Everything is momentum. My business is picking up a bit this year. Everything is linked and in a cycle. You see no movement, no change of jockeys in different directions. The jockeys rode the same horses to the Travers.

Q: Any explanation why you are having such a good encounter right now?

A: More opportunities. Basically, people trust me a little more. Everything gets recycled. In 2020, COVID, I had to stop for three weeks. I lose three weeks, it’s like two, three months. Those horses are gone, and you’re not getting them back. We have to start afresh.

Then at the end of the year I had to undergo surgery on my labrum, my hip was bothering me. Replacing the hip, and it would have ended my career, or just a little touch-up to clean up the labrum a little, it only takes three months.

When I did that, when I came back, people wonder how good he can be? It’s natural in any sport, no matter how successful you have been in the past, no matter how many Eclipse Awards you win, you’re in the Hall of Fame, you win six Travers, more than 5,500 races, but they still have the question.

Some doors didn’t open, and some doors did open and gave me the opportunity to prove myself again. I think the key to my success has been my discipline and constantly knocking on the door, not being disappointed or giving up. Be consistent, be positive and be dedicated every day.

No one wants to know what you’ve done in the past. Tell me what you did today.

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