05/05/2005 12:00AM

Veteran riders, but Derby first-timers

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
"I'm sure that by Saturday I'll be a little nervous, but that's to be expected. It will be a good kind of nervous." - Jeremy Rose, 26, rider of Afleet Alex (above)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It would be misleading to hang a rookie label on Javier Castellano or Jeremy Rose. After all, both have become highly accomplished jockeys over the last few years on their respective East Coast circuits.

Still, when they climb aboard their mounts for the 131st Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs, each will be getting his first ride in America's greatest race. And their horses are not bit players: Castellano, 27, has the mount on the likely favorite, Bellamy Road, while Rose, 26, will ride Afleet Alex, who figures no worse than the third wagering choice.

Both are polite, personable, and try to rein in their emotions as they approach their Derby debuts. They say they will try to employ an everyday mindset, one that tells them this is just another horse race. Just as quickly, they concede that raceday butterflies are likely to set in, but they will do their best to fight through them and give the performance of their lives.

"This can be a big step in my life," Castellano said earlier this week. "I have never been there, to the Kentucky Derby. I am really proud. I work very hard to get there."

"Right now, I'm just excited to be a part of all this," Rose said. "I'm sure that by Saturday I'll be a little nervous, but I guess that's to be expected. It will be a good kind of nervous, I'm sure."

For Castellano, securing the mount on a rising star such as Bellamy Road caps a steady rise. Last fall, he won the richest race on the continent, the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, on Ghostzapper, highlighting a year during which his mounts earned more than $13 million, sixth-highest in the country. He has ridden primarily in New York since 2001.

"The Breeders' Cup isn't the Derby," said Nick Zito, trainer of Bellamy Road, "but obviously it's a huge race. Javier has worked his way into the situation. He knows the horse well. He's done enough.

"I know it's a fair question about whether or not we maybe should have gotten somebody else with more experience in the Derby, but the bottom line is, I don't care," said Zito. "I think it'd be different with somebody else, but not him. I honestly think he's ready for this."

Rose also has been the subject of questions despite a resume that includes a 2001 Eclipse Award for top apprentice and riding titles at Delaware Park, Laurel Park, and the recently concluded Oaklawn Park meet. Although he rode Afleet Alex in the colt's first seven races, he was removed for the eighth race, the March 19 Rebel Stakes, in favor of John Velazquez, the 2004 Eclipse-winning jockey. Afleet Alex put in the worst performance of his career in that race, finishing sixth and last, although he subsequently was found to have a lung infection. In any case, Rose got the mount back for the April 16 Arkansas Derby, which Afleet Alex won by a race-record eight lengths.

"We decided then that the racing gods were telling us, 'Leave him on,' " said J.J. Graci, the former trainer who serves as spokesman for the Cash Is King partnership, which owns Afleet Alex. "Of course there was trepidation about having a jockey who has never ridden in the Derby. The main thing is the 20-horse field. Jeremy has never ridden in a race with a field that big.

"Still, we're not worried about his riding ability. Jeremy knows the horse better than anybody. We figure if it's not broke, don't fix it. We're going to dance with the person who brought us to the dance."

Castellano and Rose traveled divergent paths to make it to their first Derby. Castellano grew up in Venezuela as the son of a jockey, Abel Castellano Sr., who died in 2000. Rose grew up in Pennsylvania, and although he rode show horses in his teens, he never even went to a racetrack until 1999.

"When I was growing up in South America, this is always what I wanted to do," said Castellano. "When I came to Miami [in June 1997], a lot of people gave me the opportunity to be successful. I am a really fortunate guy."

Castellano's younger brother and fellow jockey, Abel Jr., 21, actually rode Bellamy Road last year in the colt's first two starts. "Abel told me everything about the horse, what a nice horse he is," said Castellano. Abel currently is recuperating in Miami from several broken vertebrae suffered in a riding injury and will not be able to attend the Derby, although Castellano's mother, sister, and wife will be here to root him on.

Rose grew up in Belfont, Pa., just outside of State College, the home of Penn State University. A wrestler in high school, Rose wanted to wrestle in college, but that didn't work when the NCAA raised the minimum weight limit from 118 to 126 pounds. A family friend took him to Penn National one day to have him look into becoming a jockey, and Rose's curiosity was piqued. He eventually went to Puerto Rico to gallop young horses, and after returning home he was ready to embark on his new career. Since then, he has made his mark in Maryland and Delaware, where for a lengthy stint he was the first-call rider for Michael Gill, the nation's leading owner in wins and earnings the last two years.

Jockeys riding in their first Derby certainly are capable of winning. In fact, 42 jockeys have won with their first ride, the latest being Stewart Elliott, the Canadian journeyman who rode Smarty Jones last year. Elliott became the first winning Derby rookie since Ronnie Franklin won aboard Spectacular Bid in 1979.

Besides Castellano and Rose, two other jockeys also will be riding in their first Derby on Saturday: Rafael Bejarano on Andromeda's Hero and Joe Bravo on Spanish Chestnut.

Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, a two-time Derby winner whose 17th Derby mount is High Fly on Saturday, said it is difficult to give advice to jockeys riding in their first Derby.

"The Derby is such a unique race because of the size of the field and the importance of the race," said Bailey. "You could tell a new jockey what to expect and what to do, but it probably wouldn't matter. The gates open, and everything can change in a split second. It's extremely intense."

Castellano and Rose both say their strategy in the Derby will be to get their horse to relax early, to secure a good running position, to keep them out of traffic trouble - and to "just get my horse to run the best he can," said Rose. A successful strategy could result in something that goes beyond wild dreams. Indeed, the first time could be the best.