03/24/2010 11:00PM

Castellano resumes his winning ways

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After enduring a winter in 2009 he doesn't want to remember, jockey Javier Castellano is enjoying a start to 2010 he won't soon forget.

Hampered by two spills last year at Gulfstream Park, where he finished with 18 wins, Castellano has threaded his way to the top of the jockey standings this year at Gulfstream with 48 winners through Sunday. Though he is unlikely to stay on top because he will leave for Keeneland following Sunday's card - with four weeks remaining in the Gulfstream meet - Castellano has more than erased the bad memories of 2009.

"Last year was one of the worst meets I ever had in my life," Castellano, 32, said recently between races in the Gulfstream Park jockey's room. "I'm so, so happy in my life right now, grateful and thankful for all the opportunities."

Perhaps the biggest opportunity Castellano has been afforded has come from trainer Todd Pletcher, who has utilized Castellano in some big spots. Pletcher has Castellano named on horses in three stakes Saturday at Fair Grounds, led by Discreetly Mine in the $750,000 Louisiana Derby. They also will team up with Battle Plan in the New Orleans Handicap and Blues Street in the Mervin Muniz Jr. Handicap. Last month, Castellano won with Blues Street.

"He's riding well, with a lot of confidence," Pletcher said of Castellano, whom he also named on two stakes on Friday's Fair Grounds card. "He rides the turf course as well as he rides the dirt. Like I've always said about Johnny [Velazquez], he's one of those guys you don't have to fit a certain horse to him. They can ride one that shows speed, they can ride one that comes from off the pace a little bit."

Castellano is excelling on the turf at Gulfstream. His 27 winners on the turf more than double the number of the next winningest rider on the turf.

At this time last year, Castellano was suffering physically and mentally. He fell twice in the 2009 Gulfstream meet. The first spill came Jan. 31, when he fell aboard Presto Change O, who clipped heels with another horse. Though Castellano rode two more days after that, he eventually missed the better part of a month with a shoulder injury. In his first mount back, aboard first-time starter Valid Name, Castellano went down again, though he returned less than a week later.

"It was so frustrating, it took a little bit of time to recover," Castellano said.

Naturally, Castellano lost some business and went through a slow period in the spring. Last June, in what he called a difficult decision, Castellano fired popular agent Mike Kelly, with whom he averaged 182 wins and $12 million in purse money over six years, and hired Matt Muzikar.

"He had a stigma that he would only ride the elite horses, he wouldn't ride the cheap horses - that he was a prima donna," Muzikar said. "It was so far from the truth, and I knew that."

Muzikar told Castellano to give him six weeks to start turning things around. By the end of Saratoga, Castellano had finished tied for fifth in the standings with two Grade 1 wins among his 26 victories.

Castellano carried the momentum through the end of the year in New York and finished as the fifth-leading rider on the circuit. In the last week of December, Castellano rode eight winners over Aqueduct's inner track. He only half-kiddingly asked Muzikar about getting out of his lease for a Florida rental to ride the winter in New York.

"We thought about staying home," Castellano said.

Most riders come to Florida looking for the 3-year-old that can take them to the Kentucky Derby. Castellano may have found his in Discreetly Mine, a son of Mineshaft and a half-brother to Discreet Cat. In the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, Castellano put Discreetly Mine on the lead coming out of the gate, and he cruised to a 1 1/2-length victory.

"My horse got the jump on the other speed," he said. "They let me get to the lead, and when I got to the lead I tried to slow down the pace, and it worked out great. I see from the past performances he doesn't have to be on the lead."

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At 1 1/8 miles, the Louisiana Derby is a sixteenth of a mile farther than the Risen Star and should give a better idea of Discreetly Mine's status as a Derby contender. Castellano said he thinks Discreetly Mine can handle additional ground.

"The way he won was very impressive," Castellano said. "It was a slow pace, don't get me wrong, but when I asked him, he finished good and galloped out strong."

If Discreetly Mine wins Saturday, he will more than likely be Castellano's fourth mount in the Kentucky Derby. Castellano has won a Breeders' Cup Classic on Ghostzapper and a Preakness on Bernardini. Like every other jockey, Castellano covets a Kentucky Derby.

In 2005, Castellano was aboard the 5-2 Derby favorite, Bellamy Road, who finished seventh behind longshot winner Giacomo after stalking the pace and tiring in the stretch. Bellamy Road entered the Derby off a 17 1/2-length win in the Wood Memorial. Castellano went to sleep the night before the Derby thinking he was going to win.

"Mentally, I was prepared," he said.

This year, he is physically prepared as well.