06/09/2011 9:58AM

Belmont Stakes: Quiet man Castanon waits his turn, pays his dues to reach elite status


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When his career arc wasn’t soaring as high as he expected, Jesus Castanon would discuss his concerns with his wife, Rolanda Simpson.

“When things were kind of low, those are the times that make you think about your life,” said Castanon. “We’d talk and try to figure out what else to do, but then the next day I’d get up and go to work like nothing was ever said. My personality is that I always like to fight, always like to win.”

After more than two decades of watching other jockeys prosper on the kind of horses he always believed he could win on, Castanon finally saw his perseverance pay off when he guided Shackleford to victory in the May 21 Preakness at Pimlico. And when the 143rd Belmont Stakes is run Saturday in New York, Castanon, 38, a native of Mexico City, could be a pivotal figure once again when Shackleford will be the horse to catch.

While Castanon has made a good living since he rode his first race in the United States in 1989 – into this week, his 15,798 mounts had won 2,065 races, with earnings of nearly $41 million – he never had been considered a top-tier rider, the type who automatically came to mind when big races were approaching.

His breakthrough this spring was a culmination of good timing and professionalism – and was overdue, according to horsemen familiar with him.

“I’ve known Jesus for years,” said Gary Stevens, the retired Hall of Fame jockey now part of the Triple Crown broadcast team on NBC. “I said on the air that he’s the best kept secret in American racing. He’s been underrated for years although that may’ve changed some with him winning a Triple Crown race.”

Castanon lives a 25-minute drive south of Churchill Downs in Shepherdsville with Rolanda, a former jockey who has trained a small stable since 2004, and their four young children. They have been married for 10 years and devote virtually all of their time to racing and family. Unfailingly polite, Castanon has never been known to toot his own horn, which may have come into play when he was perennially overlooked in favor of flashier jockeys for major races.

“He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll meet,” said Dale Romans, trainer of Shackleford. “He just goes about his business, doesn’t say much at all unless you say something to him. There’s a lot to be said for the way he just sat behind everybody for years and never complained about it. I’m just glad that once he got his chance, he maxed out on it.”

Castanon is grateful that Romans – along with owners Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge – resisted the calls of other jockey agents after Shackleford ran a big second at 60-1 odds in the Florida Derby. They stuck with Castanon for the Kentucky Derby and believed he gave the colt every chance to win, easing Shackleford into the lead on slow fractions before finishing fourth. That loyalty was rewarded when Shackleford held off Animal Kingdom to take the Preakness under what has been widely praised as a well-judged ride from Castanon.

“Jesus reminds me a lot of Eddie Delahoussaye,” said Stevens, whose final career mount, Louve Royale, was beaten by a Castanon longshot in the last race of the 2005 Churchill fall meet. “Eddie was super patient and was known as a great turf rider and a great come-from-behind rider, and so is Jesus. But that’s only because they know how much horse they have left. To me, they’re the most dangerous kind of speed rider, and I think Jesus showed that with the way he’s handled Shackleford.”

Before he and Rolanda decided to settle in Kentucky in 2002, Castanon rode throughout the country. Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park were frequent venues, but there were also stints on the Southern California and Chicago circuits and at smaller tracks such as Fairmount Park, Canterbury Park, Atlantic City, and Tampa Bay Downs. He even rode a couple of months in Macau in China.

“After the Preakness, I was getting phone calls from all over the world, from people I don’t even remember meeting a long time ago,” Castanon said. “Once you move place to place, you kind of forget about them. But they were all very nice. It was a great week after the Preakness.”

With the Kentucky circuit fragmented by depressed purses at Turfway Park and Ellis Park, Castanon feels compelled to leave the state in the summer and winter months. He and his agent, Dennis Cooper, said they have yet to discuss whether to try the ultra-tough Saratoga meet this summer or go to Arlington Park, where mounts would be easier to come by.

Wherever he goes, Castanon is sure to be met with heightened respect – and he is hoping a victory in the Belmont will make that doubly so. Shackleford clearly is the most dangerous speed type in the race Saturday, and it will be up to Castanon to figure out how to clear off and hold sway.

“I don’t want to take anything away from the horse,” he said. “He’s the type of horse that he wants to fight. Hopefully we can get a clean break, slow the pace as much as I can in the beginning, then play it by ear.”

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