02/08/2012 3:23PM

Kentucky Derby: Castellano facing tough decisions early on trail

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey Javier Castellano rides Algorithms to victory in the Holy Bull Stakes. Castellano also is the regular rider of Union Rags.

Union Rags is the slight favorite over Algorithms in the first edition of Daily Racing Form ’s Derby Watch for 2012, and, among individual entrants in Pool 1 of this weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager, Algorithms is slightly favored over Union Rags. Box that exacta, and you’ve tied up the two horses currently viewed as the leading contenders for this year’s Derby, on May 5 at Churchill Downs.

A showdown between Algorithms and Union Rags in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26 looms as the most exciting early season Derby prep so far. Exciting for just about everyone, that is, except jockey Javier Castellano and his agent, Matt Muzikar, who have such an embarrassment of riches among 3-year-olds at this stage that they must make a critical decision very early in the process.

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Castellano rode Union Rags to victories last year in the Saratoga Special and Champagne Stakes and to a narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which was run at Churchill Downs. The Fountain of Youth will be his first start of the year. Castellano has been on Algorithms for all three of his starts, all wins, including a five-length victory in the Holy Bull Stakes last month.

It is not uncommon for a top jockey to have to decide between leading contenders for the Derby as the race draws closer. But having to choose between the top two this far in front of the Derby may be unprecedented.

“I’m really blessed and thankful to be in this position, although it’s also a tough position to be in,” Castellano said Wednesday. “I really don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I pray I make the right choice and at the same time not burn any bridges.”

Castellano and Muzikar have put themselves in this position by making great inroads in recent years with Algorithm’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, who divides the spoils among Castellano and John Velazquez after largely relying on Velazquez in previous years. Of the four Pletcher runners on the inaugural Derby Watch list – Algorithms, Discreet Dancer, El Padrino, and Gemologist – Castellano has been riding them all.

Discreet Dancer also is headed to the Fountain of Youth, and Pletcher said Velazquez would likely ride him. Pletcher said Castellano has the calls on El Padrino in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 25 and on Gemologist in the Rebel at Oaklawn on March 17.

Both Pletcher and Michael Matz, trainer of Union Rags, have won the Derby – Pletcher with Super Saver in 2010, Matz with Barbaro in 2006. That makes this call even more difficult.

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Castellano had high praise for both Algorithms and Union Rags, both of whom are currently based at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida. Algorithms is a son of Bernardini, whom Castellano rode to victory in the 2006 Preakness, the race in which Barbaro suffered catastrophic injuries. Algorithms will be making his first start around two turns in the Fountain of Youth.

“I rode his father, and he was an amazing horse,” Castellano said. “There’s no question in my mind he’ll go the distance and that he’s headed in the right direction.”

Union Rags, Castellano said, “is a really, really nice horse, and he’s already run over the Churchill Downs track and showed up around two turns.”

“I’m anxious to see how he’s going to develop in his next two preps, and I told Michael I’d like to work him once before the Fountain of Youth,” Castellano said.

As with Algorithms, Union Rags has two more works scheduled prior to the Fountain of Youth. Matz confirmed Wednesday that Castellano would work him in one of those drills.

Even if Castellano and Muzikar believe Union Rags is the better prospect – and they are not tipping their hand one way or the other – they get far more business from Pletcher, so that could weigh on their decision.

“We’re still contemplating our decision,” Muzikar said Wednesday. “Todd said Algorithms would work this weekend, and he wanted a decision after that.”

The longer an agent can wait, the better. The worst thing that could happen would be to commit to one horse, and then have that horse come up with a hiccup that prevents him from running in the race. On the West Coast, for instance, jockey Joel Rosario and his agent, Ronnie Ebanks, are going to find themselves having to choose between Empire Way and Midnight Transfer if both end up, as it now appears they will, in the San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 10. Ebanks said he would like to delay that decision as long as possible.

When it comes to the Derby, though, the usual rules don’t apply, according to agent Ron Anderson, who repeatedly found himself in this position over the years when representing jockeys like Jerry Bailey, Garrett Gomez, and Gary Stevens.

“A lot of times you have to consider who you have more business with, or things like that, but, for me, this is one of those races where all those rules go out the window,” Anderson said Wednesday. “When you are trying to win the Derby, you can’t worry about trying to accommodate a customer, and they have to understand that.

“You have to take your best shot for that day. It’s a life-changing race. The first thing people who aren’t in racing ask someone is, ‘Did you win the Derby?’ They don’t ask if you won the Wood Memorial.”

– additional reporting by Mike Welsch