07/20/2011 4:55PM

Saratoga: Castellano sets sights on elusive title

Barbara D. Livingston
Javier Castellano comes home a winner aboard Afleet Express in the 2010 Travers.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – When you’re in the middle of what could be a career year, it’s hard to be disappointed. But one couldn’t blame Javier Castellano for feeling a little disappointment for coming up 1 1/4 lengths short of earning at least a share of his first Belmont Park riding title.

When Ramon Dominguez won Sunday’s last race at Belmont on Aprilmayjune, running past Castellano and his mount, Ms Diller, in deep stretch, it gave Dominguez the title, 71-69, over Castellano. The 69 wins were the best showing Castellano has had at a Belmont meet in his decade riding at New York Racing Association tracks.

“I put a lot into trying to get it done,” Castellano said Wednesday morning at Saratoga. “I’m still satisfied with the meet. I wish I could’ve won my first Belmont meet, but now I’m looking toward getting my first Saratoga meet.”

Castellano, 33, hopes to contend again for the Saratoga riding title that he came perilously close to winning last year when the 143rd Saratoga season starts Friday with the first of 40 cards. In 2010, Castellano won 54 races here, three fewer than John Velazquez. The summer of 2010 at the Spa was a memorable one for Castellano in that he set a record by winning five consecutive races on the July 25 card. He also won his second Travers, guiding Afleet Express to a nose victory over Fly Down, and he won three other graded stakes.

“I won the Travers, I won five races in a row, I broke a lot of records, but still I didn’t win the title,” Castellano said. “But at the end of the day, “Wow.’ I walked away so happy and satisfied that we had a great meet.”

Castellano has learned to become more appreciative of the success he has had in his career, especially when he reflects back to where he was in the first three months of 2009. Castellano began that year’s Gulfstream meet 6 for 92 before suffering a shoulder injury in a spill on Jan. 31. He would miss three weeks of action only to be unseated again when his first mount back from the injury broke down, forcing Castellano to miss another week.

Castellano felt that he had lost his business, and though things started to pick up that spring, Castellano parted ways with agent Mike Kelly – with whom he averaged 182 wins and $12 million in purse earnings over six years – and hired Matt Muzikar as his new agent.

“The perception was he didn’t have much heart and he was very selective on what he rode,” said Muzikar, who previously had Eibar Coa’s book. “They were false perceptions. The key to him is that his confidence level rose tremendously.”

Muzikar, who also handles engagements for Cornelio Velasquez, has a good relationship with the nation’s perennial leading trainer, Todd Pletcher, who began to use Castellano more frequently. Since June 2009, Castellano has won 51 races from 183 mounts for Pletcher (27.7 percent) including 12 graded stakes.

“I think he’s always been a good rider, he’s ridden some of the best horses that have been in training the last few years – Bernardini and Ghostzapper,” Pletcher said. “I think he’s raised his game to another level. He seems to be a very versatile rider. . . . I think he’s pretty good at getting horses to settle, particularly on the turf with horses that maybe want to be a little eager. He’s got good hands.”

Chad Brown was an assistant to Bobby Frankel when that Hall of Fame trainer began using him in the early 2000s. Brown, who now maintains one of the largest stables on this circuit, said he has noticed another key change in Castellano.

“He’s taken his studying and his preparation for the races to another level,” Brown said. “That’s very helpful for a trainer. He really has a plan when he comes to the paddock. He always comes up with information from past races.”

Castellano is a native of Venezuela, where his father and uncle were jockeys. His father made sure Castellano finished school before he allowed him to ride, but once he did finish, Castellano was immediately in the saddle. He came to the United States in the summer of 1997 and won aboard his first mount, Phone Man, on July 31, 1997, at Calder.

Castellano won two riding titles at the Tropical at Calder meets before moving his tack to New York in 2001. He was the leading rider at Aqueduct’s 2002-03 inner track meet and that track’s spring meet of 2004 and fall meet at 2007.

Castellano said Nick Zito was one of his earliest supporters, but when he got into the Frankel barn things began to take off. He got to win Grade 1 races on horses like Ghostzapper, on whom he won the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic, as well as Sightseek and Mass Media.

“I think I learn a lot from Bobby Frankel, how to ride horses, how to have confidence in myself,” Castellano said. “Those kind of horses help you a lot. Now you realize working horses the good ones, the bad ones. He was a big supporter in my career. I always appreciated that.”

Entering Friday’s opening-day card at Saratoga, Castellano has 147 wins (seventh nationally), and his horses have earned $7,078,040, putting him fourth nationally. Last year, his 246 wins ranked him 11th nationally, and he finished the year with $13,027,706 in purse money earned. Still, what most people remember of Castellano’s 2010 season was his fight with Calvin Borel just outside the winner’s circle following the Breeders’ Cup Marathon at Churchill Downs.

Castellano admitted he made an error in judgment when he guided his mount, Prince Will I Am, off the rail, causing interference with a couple of other horses. Still, he was taken aback when Borel came after him, throwing punches and cursing at him. Both jocks were fined and suspended.

“Calvin at the end of the day he came to me to apologize,” Castellano said. “I give a lot of credit to him he didn’t wait that long to apologize, to recognize he made a mistake. We shook hands, put it behind us, and moved forward.”

When it comes to his position in the rider standings at NYRA tracks, it appears Castellano just has one more move to make.