June will mark 20 years since Javier Castellano arrived in the U.S. from his native Venezuela at age 19, and his trophy collection is ever expanding, topped off by the last four Eclipse Awards as outstanding jockey. He is closing in on 5,000 career victories, including many of the most important races in America.
Yet even in the glow of a late April phone call that shared news of his induction to the National Racing Hall of Fame, Castellano is well aware of a significant hole in his résumé. He is 0-for-10 in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and cannot wait for the opportunity to achieve a breakthrough with Gunnevera next Saturday at Churchill Downs.
"It's been a target of mine for many years," he said. "Every year I think about it, 'This is the year, this is the year,' and you try to prepare and put yourself in position to be on the right horse. But it's not easy. You look at Mario Gutierrez: he has ridden the Derby twice and won it both times. How lucky is this guy?
"Victor Espinoza has not ridden the Derby that much (eight times), but he has three wins. Bellamy Road (2005) was the favorite and had to be one of my best shots, but he didn't perform that day, he didn't show up. Normandy Invasion (2013) finished the closest, he was fourth and ran really well. I just have to keep trying and hope to be on the right horse with the right trip."
With the Derby still an elusive hallmark, Castellano said he was surprised when he received the Hall of Fame phone call.
"I thought I would it would take me maybe a couple more years," Castellano said about his chances of entering the Hall of Fame. "I can't wait to share that day with my family. My uncle will be there, and he really helped me start my career in Venezuela, along with my dad, who rode for 25 years. They played a big part in getting me started."
Castellano shares Venezuelan ties to the connections of Gunnevera, but he did not meet trainer Antonio Sano until Sano had moved to the U.S. and begun establishing himself in South Florida a few years ago.
After Gunnevera broke his maiden last July at Gulfstream Park in his third career start, Sano made something of a bold decision in pointing the colt for a trip to New York for the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes. He tried to get Castellano for the mount right off the bat, but Castellano already had committed to ride a horse for one his main clients, trainer Todd Pletcher.
The morning entries were taken for the Saratoga Special, Pletcher's horse had to withdraw due to illness, and Castellano called Sano himself to see if he could switch to Gunnevera at the last minute. Sano was thrilled to accept, and Gunnevera came through with a dazzling rally from more than 9 lengths back to win going away at 9.20-1 odds.
"That was fantastic, and I could tell by looking at him and riding him that he was not just going to be a sprinter," Castellano said. "He seemed like a colt who would want to go longer and would continue to develop. Antonio deserves credit, he was patient and let him develop. I know he thought about running him in the Breeders' Cup, and I had another mount and was not going to be able to ride him, and they decided to wait for the Delta Jackpot a few weeks later."
In November, Mike Lakow had just started taking on the role as Castellano's jockey agent, and he vividly remembers Castellano analyzing the Delta Downs Jackpot field after they decided Castellano would make the trip to ride Gunnevera.
"It was amazing, he told me where he was going to be in the race, what the other riders were going to do, and it was exactly how it happened," Lakow said. "Javier is so intelligent, and on top of that he does his homework. You can see why he has been so successful."
Gunnevera again rumbled from last and drew off powerfully to win by 5 ¾ lengths in the Delta Jackpot, and Castellano has stayed with him ever since, with a highlight coming in another 5 ¾-length win in the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4. In between, they have encountered a couple of potholes: a good second to Irish War Cry in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream in January; and a more deflating third as the favorite in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby.
Sano has felt confident for months that the 10-furlong distance of the Derby and especially the 12-furlong trip of the Belmont Stakes will play in Gunnevera's favor.
"We are fortunate that we have had such a champion jockey [on Gunnevera] and will have him for the Derby," Sano said. "It is very important."
Of course, Castellano has been doing his homework.
"I can see there is a lot of speed in the race," he said. "I don't want to change my horse's style – he is a come-from-behind horse. In the Derby, you just have to have the best trip you can get, not get bounced around in the first turn, and when you turn for home, you have to find the best seam. If a horse like him gets stopped, you can lose all the momentum and can lose the race. You have to have the horse, but then you have to have the trip."