Castellano Hopes Gunnevera Will Be The One That Provides Him With That Elusive KY Derby Win

If Javier Castellano called time today on his riding career there wouldn't be many boxes left unchecked on his to-do list.

Castellano — a winner of four consecutive Eclipse Awards (2013-16), six different Breeders' Cup races, a plethora of meet titles, 4,600-plus races — recently learned he earned a coveted spot on the ballot for induction into racing's Hall of Fame.

But Castellano, 39, hungers for more, specifically a yearning to win a race that is conspicuously absent from his burgeoning list of stakes victories.

“I've been very lucky. I've won a lot of races . . . good ones,” Castellano said on a recent afternoon in between races at Gulfstream Park. “I have traveled a lot for my career. I've won Eclipse Awards. But you always want something more in your life . . . you always target something and the Kentucky Derby is my target. It's one thing I want to knock down.”

The Venezuelan native has been thwarted in 10 prior attempts to win the Kentucky Derby — his best finish was a fourth aboard Normandy Invasion in 2013. But outside of his first Derby ride, Bellamy Road, the beaten favorite in 2005, Castellano hasn't ridden a horse who was expected to wear the garland of roses.

Although several major preps have yet to be run, including the $1 million Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park April 1, Castellano is already courting several potential Derby horses.

He is the regular rider of the Antonio Sano-trained Gunnevera, whose potent late kick propelled him to a 5 3/4-length victory in the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park March 4, a win that makes him the likely favorite in the Florida Derby. Castellano is also the partner of the Todd Pletcher-trained Malagacy, the undefeated colt he guided to a two-length victory in the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park March 18. One week after the Florida Derby, Castellano will ride Remsen (G2) winner Mo Town for trainer Tony Dutrow in the Wood Memorial (G2) a Aqueduct.

When Castellano rides Gunnevera in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, the rider will be looking for his second win in the renowned Derby prep, which has produced 23 Kentucky Derby winners, including last year's winner, Nyquist. In 2014, Castellano won the Florida Derby with the Pletcher-trained Constitution, who subsequently missed the Kentucky Derby because of an injury.

Castellano is very high on Gunnevera, who he said conducts himself in his races as if he's been around for years.

“Gunnevera acts like a pro, like an old horse,” Castellano said. “So far nothing bothers him. He doesn't react to dirt in the face. Some horses won't close when they get that kick-back. But everything he does comes so easily.”

Castellano was first partnered with Gunnevera, who is based year-round at Gulfstream Park West, in the Saratoga Special (G2) last August. While making his fourth career start, the colt won the Saratoga Special at odds of 9-1 in a come-from-behind victory, a win that put him on the radar as a juvenile to watch. In December, Castellano and Gunnevera journeyed to Louisiana to capture the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot (G3), a win that proved the Saratoga Special wasn't a fluke. Before the colt's tour-de-force in the Fountain of Youth, Castellano rode Gunnevera to a second-place finish in the Lambholm South Holy Bull (G2) behind Irish War Cry.

Sano, who began his training career in his native Venezuela before coming to the United States in 2009, said when he shipped Gunnevera to Saratoga last year he was in need of a rider. While he was debating his choices, Sano received a phone call that pleased him so much that till this day the recollection of it places a huge smile on his face.

“Javier called me on the phone and told me he wanted to ride my horse,” Sano said. “I was so honored. A lot of pride, I felt.”

Gunnevera, a son of 2011 Florida Derby winner Dialed In, was bought by Sano for a mere $16,000 as a yearling at Keeneland on behalf of Venezuelans, Solomon Del-Valle and Guillermo Guerra, and Jamie Diaz from Spain, the triumvirate that comprise Peacock Racing Stables.

Castellano launched his career in Venezuela in 1996 in advance of immigrating to the United States the following year. The jockey said there are good vibes associated with riding a horse that connects him to his homeland.

“I never had the opportunity to ride for Antonio in Venezuela, because I only rode in my country for a short time before coming to the United States,” Castellano said. “I had never met him there. But I knew he was great horseman, who won a lot of important races in Venezuela. It makes it very, very special for all of us from Venezuela to share this experience with this horse.”

On April 24, 11 days before the Kentucky Derby is run, the inductees for the 2017 Hall of Fame class will be revealed. Castellano admitted when he first learned the news March 8 that his name was on the ballot, along with four other riders, he was taken aback.

“To be honest with you, I was shocked,” he said. “I didn't expect that. I thought it might happen in a couple of more years. If I knock it down before I expected to that would be awesome, but it's a very competitive list of riders.”

The past several months have been ones of transition — albeit smooth ones — for Castellano, who parted ways with his longtime agent, Matt Muzikar, late last summer, and began working with Mike Lakow, a former racing official.

“Everything is going in the right direction. Mike is handling the business very, very well,” Castellano said. “I give a lot of credit to [Muzikar] because I wouldn't be where I am today without him. I will never forget what he did for me. He gave me my first steps in my career and now Mike is giving me my second steps.”

While Castellano hopes to conclude his season in Florida by celebrating a win in the Florida Derby aboard Gunnevera, he won't be topping the jockey standings at the Championship Meet, something he accomplished for an unprecedented fifth consecutive time in 2016. He has ridden far less horses at the current stand, compared to years past — a deliberate decision on his part.

“I came up with something different this year. It's a long year. You have to pick your spots,” said the married father of three young children. “At the end of the year, [Eclipse Award voters] are looking at Grade 1s, Grade 2s, and money won to be considered for an Eclipse Award, which is what I'm looking for. I don't think they count the number of races won or the standings at meets.

“I'm going to be 40 this year,” he added. “It's hard to say, but I'm looking at a goal of riding another 10 years. In the meantime, I want to continue to take care of my body because there's more for me to accomplish.”

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