05/01/2017 12:26PM

Derby one of the few prizes to elude Castellano's grasp

Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey Javier Castellano will try to capture his first Kentucky Derby aboard Gunnevera, who he has already guided to three graded stakes wins.

He is the four-time reigning champion jockey, is closing in on 100 Grade 1 stakes victories, and just two weeks ago was elected into Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame.

When it comes to the sport’s Triple Crown races, however, Javier Castellano has not been nearly as successful. Castellano has just one win from 25 mounts in the Triple Crown series comprised of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. The win came in the 2006 Preakness on Bernardini, a victory largely overshadowed by the breakdown of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro early in the race.

Castellano is 0 or 10 each in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. He has three seconds in the Belmont, including a nose loss to Creator last year aboard Destin.

In the Derby, Castellano has fared no better than a fourth-place finish aboard Normandy Invasion in 2013, a race in which he may have made a premature move.

On Saturday, Castellano will try to end his Derby drought when he rides Gunnevera in the 143rd Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. Castellano won’t be riding for either of his two main clients, Todd Pletcher or Chad Brown, both of whom have runners in the race.

Instead, Castellano will be riding for trainer Antonio Sano, who like Castellano is a native of Venezuela. The two never met in Venezuela. They met four years ago at Gulfstream Park when Sano began training in the U.S. Sano is making his Derby debut.

“He seemed to be a great guy, a good horseman,” Castellano said. “I think he developed a good horse.”

Castellano first rode Gunnevera last summer in the Saratoga Special, guiding him to a one-length victory in the 6 1/2-furlong race. Castellano did not ride Gunnevera when the horse finished fifth behind Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. Castellano was back aboard him for the Delta Downs Jackpot, rallying him from last to first to win by 5 3/4 lengths.

In three starts this year, all at Gulfstream Park, Gunnevera has a win in the Fountain of Youth sandwiched between a second-place finish in the Holy Bull to Irish War Cry and a third in the Florida Derby to Always Dreaming, horses he will face again in the Kentucky Derby.

Gunnevera had some trouble in the Holy Bull. In the Florida Derby, he broke from the outside post in a 10-horse field. After dropping 15 lengths out of it, he finished third, 6 1/2 lengths behind Always Dreaming.

“In the Holy Bull, I was on the rail, they bothered me a little bit, I checked a little, but those things happen in the Derby, too,” Castellano said. “You got to be lucky; right time, right place to win the race. I believe the Derby is the hardest race to win because you got to be lucky. You have to have the best horse, and you have to have a clean trip.”

Castellano’s best chance for Derby success came with his first mount in the race, Bellamy Road, in 2005. After winning the Wood Memorial by 17 1/2 lengths at Aqueduct, Bellamy Road went off as the 5-2 favorite in the Derby. Up close to a hot pace while chasing in fifth position, Bellamy Road was in contention turning for home but couldn’t sustain his bid and faded to seventh, beaten 6 3/4 lengths by longshot winner Giacomo.

“I wouldn’t have changed anything that day; unfortunately, he didn’t fire,” Castellano said. “I remember there was a lot of speed. It was like a record pace [of] 22, 45, 1:09 and change. I know there was plenty of speed. Turning for home, I was on the lead. I couldn’t carry it to the wire.”

Since then, only two of Castellano’s nine Derby mounts have gone off at odds lower than 10-1. Gemologist finished 16th at 8-1 in 2012, and Normandy Invasion was 9-1 when he ran fourth in 2013.

“You work all year round to try and find the best 3-year-old to win those kinds of races, and for whatever reason, they’re hard to get,” Castellano said. “It’s been very challenging.”

Aside from the Derby, Castellano, 39, has met virtually every challenge. He has 94 Grade 1 stakes victories and 4,666 career wins. He has won the last four Eclipse Awards as North America’s top jockey, and this summer he’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“I didn’t expect it to be this early,” said Castellano, who acknowledged his wife, Abby, and their three children for their support during his career. “I think I can do something [more] in my career.”

What he’d like to do this Saturday is win his first Kentucky Derby.