LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Winning the Kentucky Derby as a jockey takes a lot of luck, patience and having a good horse underneath you.
For Javier Castellano, a Hall of Fame jockey who has won some of the biggest races in the land, the Derby is the one that has eluded him in 12 previous attempts.
His best Derby effort occurred last year when he steered Audible to third, just losing out on a second-place finish by a head bob to Good Magic.
“Hopefully this is the year I can break through and win,” Castellano, 41, said. “This is the race all jockeys are looking to win when they start riding. It’s been a goal of mine for a long time.”
He was sitting in his Garden City, N.Y., home Thursday morning mentally preparing for an afternoon of mounts at Belmont Park when The News reached him by phone.
He was expected to travel Thursday night to Louisville to ride Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Jaywalk in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma in Saturday’s 145th Run for the Roses.
The Venezuela native's career victories include eight Breeders’ Cup races, the biggest on Ghostzapper in the Classic in 2004 in one of the most amazing performances of all time. He has two Preakness wins, the ill-fated 2006 race with Bernardini and two years ago with Cloud Computing. He’s won just about every race on the Saratoga Race Course schedule, including six Travers Stakes.
He was enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2017, the crowning achievement for any rider. He won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey from 2013 through 2016, the annual award for the top jockey of the year.
With all he’s accomplished, a Derby win would be icing on the cake for the jockey known as Javy.
“You always have to have a goal in your life,” said Castellano. “My goal is to chase it. Hopefully this is the year.”
Castellano credited his agent, John Panagot, with securing the mount on Vekoma and confirming a spot in Derby 145 on a horse that could be dangerous, despite sitting at 15-1 on the revised morning line.
Panagot was quick to point out it took years for some of the best jockeys to land their first Derby win.
“He’s ridden in a bunch of these big races and for a guy that’s won every other big race in America, this is the one that’s eluded him,” Panagot said by phone from Saratoga Springs. “Listen, Mike Smith was 40 when he finally won one and Johnny V was just turning 40 when he won his first.”
“It’s a funny race,” said Panagot, who has been Castellano's agent since last summer. “Some get it early like Cauthen, Antley and Gutierrez and others have had to wait."
The most important ingredient to winning the Derby is having a superior horse capable of lasting the classic distance of a mile-and-a-quarter. Only 20 horses out of an estimated 20,000 foals get to run in America’s biggest race every year.
“It all depends on the horse,” Castellano said. “You have to have luck and you have to get the trip.”
In the 2013 Derby, he made a bold move on the far turn on the Chad Brown-trained Normandy Invasion, which was the first time that winning the race seemed a possibility. Normandy Invasion had taken the lead at the top of the stretch and tried to draw clear, but his horse had been used up fading to fourth in deep stretch.
"I thought I was going to win the race, but he had nothing left," Castellano said on that rainy day.
Trainer George Weaver and Castellano have won some big races together. Castellano rode Weaver’s first Grade 1 winner in Dubai. Castellano gave him that coveted first winner in the six-furlong Golden Shaheen sprint race on World Cup night in 2005 aboard Saratoga County.
Castellano lauded Weaver as a trainer and said he was thankful for the opportunity to ride Vekoma in the Blue Grass on April 6.
With his horse's entry in the Derby secured, Weaver was on the phone to Panagot three weeks ago pushing for Castellano to ride Vekoma. The owners made the decision and Castellano was confirmed on April 15, a week after his winning ride in the Blue Grass.
“He’s got a good feel for him,” Weaver said Thursday outside Barn 41 at Churchill Downs. “He was definitely invited back after winning the Blue Grass, we’re glad to have him. I was trying to get the best jock I could and I got him.”
With a strong possibility of rain in the forecast, Vekoma’s pedigree suggests he will handle the wet track, but like all of the Derby hopefuls, it will be the first trip at the mile-and-a-quarter distance. He’ll likely be part of the first tier of horses flashing speed early. If he still has something in the tank around the top of the stretch, he could be a major player in the race.
“If his pedigree has anything to do with it he should handle it,” Weaver said of the potential off track. “He won the mile-and-an-eighth Blue Grass with authority. There’s nothing about this horse that tells me he can’t handle the distance. We’ll find out when they hit the eighth pole though,” said Weaver.
In addition to Castellano’s first Derby win, it would also be Weaver’s first, a training disciple of the legendary D. Wayne Lukas and also spent time as an assistant in the Todd Pletcher barn. Weaver had his only other Derby starter in 2015 when Tencendur finished 17th.
“Javier is very good at what he does, he’s an excellent rider,” said Weaver. “I have the utmost confidence that he’ll give the horse a chance to win.”
Castellano showed no signs of pressure and cited his faith when discussing his futility to date in the Kentucky Derby. “I think if it’s meant to be, God will grant it to me,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career. Physically and mentally, I’m really prepared. You just need luck.”
On the 13th try under the iconic Twin Spires, he’s hoping luck will be on his side.
Gene Kershner is the turf writer for The Buffalo News, a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.