He’s among the quieter riders out there, seldom seeking the spotlight, but as 2013 comes to a close, jockey Javier Castellano may well be on the verge of winning his first Eclipse Award.
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On December 13, the Venezuela native broke the single season earnings record set in 2012 by Ramon Dominguez, forced to retire earlier this year as a result of injuries suffered in a January riding accident. Dominguez’s purse earnings last year were $25,634,852; as of today, Castellano has earned $26,061,862.
Castellano, 36, began riding in Venezuela in 1996, moving to the United States in 1997 to ride the South Florida circuit. He got his first winner on July 31, 1997, at Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens. Moving to New York in 2001, he quickly became one of the top riders in the competitive jockey colony, finishing second in the standings in 2002.
2013 has been a career year for Castellano; he won riding titles at the fall and spring meets at Belmont Park and won his first title at the competitive Saratoga meet in the summer. 2013 has been a career year for Castellano; he won riding titles at the fall and spring meets at Belmont Park and won his first title at the competitive Saratoga meet in the summer. He’s currently riding at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida, where he is the two-time defending riding leader.
The married father of three is quick to point out that increases in purse money as a result of slot machine revenue in New York, the primary circuit on which he rides, played a big role in his breaking the record. He also credits his agent, Matt Muzikar.
“I appreciate everything he does for me,” said Castellano last weekend from Florida. “He’s one of the best in the market right now.”
Muzikar has been booking mounts for the jockey since 2009; jockeys typically earn 10 percent of the owners’ share of purse money, with 25 to 30 percent of the jockeys’ portion going to the agent.
“Javier is the complete package,” said Muzikar. “He’s pretty versatile as a rider; he’s tactical and can adapt to any situation on the racetrack.
“He handicaps the races and educates himself about how the race is going to set up.”
Muzikar also pointed out that Castellano rides for a variety of trainers at all levels of racing.
“While you make the big money in the big stakes races,” he said, “you can’t survive and win titles just riding in them. You have to mix in allowance and claiming horses.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has been the leading money-earning trainer in North America seven times, including the last three years, expressed similar sentiments.
“Breaking a record like that speaks of your consistent ability to ride all kinds of horses,” he said. “Javier’s versatility is part of what makes him good. He rides sprints well, eh rides route races well. He excels on the grass. He’s a complete rider, and that’s what enabled him to accomplish what he did this year.”
Last February, when Castellano had come up from Florida to ride one of Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby prospects in a stakes race at Aqueduct, he put Castellano on a filly in an ungraded stakes races. Princess of Sylmar won that day, and would go to win three Grade 1 races with Castellano in the saddle.
“She could be my most memorable horse this year,” said the jockey. “Those three Grade 1 races were very impressive.”
He also singled out his win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies aboard Ria Antonia as a highlight of the year.
But he was quick to add, “I’m blessed to ride a lot of good horses. Todd Pletcher, and [trainers] Chad Brown and Shug McGaughey put me on a lot of good horses.”
Castellano won the Remsen Stakes in November on McGaughey’s promising two-year-old Honor Code; McGaughey won this year’s Kentucky Derby with Orb, and with two wins and a second in three races this year, Honor Code, too, will be have a three-year-old campaign that points to Louisville in May.
As he has been for the last two years, Castellano is expected to be a finalist for an Eclipse Award as champion jockey; he has yet to win that award, but it will be no surprise if his name is announced at the awards ceremony on January 18.
In a profession whose competitors are frequently sidelined by injury, Castellano has been lucky; he hasn’t missed any significant riding time in the last few years, unlike other jockeys who will likely join him as Eclipse finalists. The two jockeys right behind Castellano in earnings, Joel Rosario and John Velazquez, both missed months of riding this time because of injury.
Mindful of the risks of his profession, Castellano regularly represents the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund at fundraising events. His father-in-law, Terry Meyocks, is the national manager of the Jockeys Guild.
Castellano will ride in Florida until the spring; his wife Abby and their three young children will remain home in New York.
“It’s hard to take the kids out of school there and bring them down here to school for three months, then bring them home again,” he explained. “We did it for the last two years and it worked out OK, but it means a lot of sacrifices for the kids, and I wouldn’t do it now.”
Sacrifice is a well-known concept to a man who must observe strict dietary and exercise regimes in order to make riding weight, but even as Castellano acknowledges those sacrifices, he also recognizes his good fortune.
“Breaking the record means a lot to me because of the things you have to go through to get here,” he said. “I’ve been blessed.”