04/28/2011 3:43PM

Kentucky Derby: Castro on national stage

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Barbara D. Livingston
Toby's Corner runs down Arthur's Tale and Uncle Mo to win the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

ELMONT, N.Y. – There are defining moments in every athlete’s career, and jockey Eddie Castro had several before the age of 21. At 18, he won the 2003 Eclipse Award as North America’s leading apprentice. In June 2005, two months after he turned 20, Castro won nine races on a single card at Calder. At 21, Castro pulled off an upset in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Mile aboard 24-1 shot Miesque’s Approval.

Last month, a day before he turned 26, Castro had another memorable moment, guiding Toby’s Corner to an upset of heavily favored Uncle Mo in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. That set him up for perhaps a crowning achievement in his career next Saturday at Churchill Downs when he rides Toby’s Corner in the Kentucky Derby. It will be Castro’s first ride in the world’s most famous horse race.

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“I’m comfortable. I’m not nervous, it’s exciting,” said Castro, a 2002 graduate of the Laffit Pincay Jr. jockey school in his native Panama.

In addition to riding in his first Derby, Castro plans to ride his first full spring/summer meet at Belmont Park, eschewing a return to Monmouth Park, where in 2010 he finished fourth in the rider standings with 66 wins. In 2009, Castro won 113 races at Monmouth. The uncertainty regarding Monmouth’s schedule and purse structure combined with Castro’s success this year in New York led to him staying, according to agent Mike Gonzalez.

“We’re going to give it a run here and see if it works out,” Gonzalez, a former rider, said. “If not, we like Monmouth. That’s always there as a backup.”

While so much attention in the Wood was paid to the disappointing effort of the previously undefeated Uncle Mo, lost somewhat in the shuffle was the flawless ride Castro gave Toby’s Corner, a horse Castro had ridden to victory in the Whirlaway in February and to a third-place finish in the Gotham in March.

Racing in sixth position while saving ground down the backside in the Wood, Castro found himself shuffled back to last in the nine-horse field entering the far turn. Rather than panic and attempt to take the horse outside and make a wide run, Castro maintained his inside position until the quarter pole, when he was able to swing the horse out into the four path. In upper stretch, Norman Asbjornson cut in front of Toby’s Corner, forcing Castro to take his horse another path wide. Castro got into his horse five times right-handed and six times left-handed to split horses and get the win by a head over Arthur’s Tale.

“I knew I had a lot of horse, I was just hoping a spot would open,” Castro said.

Gonzalez, who has served as Castro’s agent since he came to this country in 2003, said he received several congratulatory texts and e-mails, many noting that Castro’s ride made a difference. One came from Rick Mettee, who serves as Shiekh Mohammed al Maktom’s North American-based assistant trainer.

“I thought he rode a perfect race,” Mettee said.

A lot of credit for Toby’s Corner’s performance in the Wood was attributed to the fact trainer Graham Motion put blinkers on the horse following his third-place finish in the Gotham. Motion believes his rider played a significant role as well.

“I think the blinkers made a huge difference, but I think the fact that Eddie is so confident in the horse made a big difference too,” Motion said. “I don’t think I quite realized until the paddock in the Wood how much confidence Eddie had in the horse, and I thought that’s the way he rode him and I think that will be huge going forward.”

Castro grew up in Panama, where his father ran a produce farm. Light and relatively short, Castro at age 16 decided to enroll in jockey school, much to the chagrin of his mother. Though Castro grew to 5 feet, 5 inches, he remained light and graduated in the same class as Fernando Jara and Jose Lezcano. Jara came to New York – where he won the 2006 Belmont Stakes – and Lezcano went to Tampa while Castro went to south Florida.

In 2003, Castro won 242 races and earned the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice, despite missing three months of action. In 2005, he set a Calder record with 218 wins at the summer meet, establishing a record for that track. That included a nine-win day from 11 mounts on June 4. Castro moved his tack to New Jersey in 2006 and in 2007 he captured the Meadowlands riding title.

Two of the last three winters, Castro rode in New York. This winter, Castro finished fourth in the rider standings with 45 wins, eight of them coming in stakes. He rode two stakes winners for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, with whom Castro also had success last summer at Monmouth. McLaughlin said Castro has made natural improvement from his younger days and was also impressed with his ride on Toby’s Corner in the Wood.

“Eddie has done everything properly and he and his agent have taken advantage of a little momentum,” McLaughlin said. “I think he gives his horses a great chance to win and he’s always thinking out there.”