After virus scare, Castellano ready to ride again

Hall of Fame jockey tested positive for COVID-19 in March, but is cleared for return next weekend after two quarantines
Jockey Javier Castellano looks skyward after winning the Ballerina on Come Dancing at Saratoga last summer.
Jockey Javier Castellano looks skyward after winning the Ballerina on Come Dancing at Saratoga last summer.

Categories: Sports

Farmington Road’s running style is to come from the back of the field and make a late run at the leaders.

That move nearly got him to the winner’s circle at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, two weekends ago, when he was last of 13 in the Oaklawn Stakes but couldn’t quite catch 46-1 long shot Mr. Big News, finishing second by a half-length.

Under normal circumstances, Javier Castellano would’ve been in the saddle riding Farmington Road that day, but nothing seems normal these days, so instead the Hall of Fame jockey watched the race from his mother’s apartment in south Florida, despite the fact that Castellano was healthy, strong and eager to ride.

Like the running style of his Kentucky Derby hopeful, Castellano is coming from behind to some degree as he looks forward to riding Farmington Road again in the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn next weekend. The jockey hasn’t ridden since March 15 and has been quarantined twice, the first time after testing positive for COVID-19 on March 25 and the second in order to fulfill safety protocols instituted by Oaklawn.

Thoroughbred tracks have shut down all across the country, including Aqueduct in New York, with plans for the Belmont Park spring/summer meet still under consideration and concern over the scheduled July 16 opening of Saratoga Race Course already looming. The few tracks that are open, like Oaklawn and Gulfstream Park in Florida, of course, are racing without spectators and with a new battery of safety measures designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, some high-profile jockeys, like Irad Ortiz Jr. and Rajiv Maragh, have taken temporary leaves of absence from their profession. (Maragh came back in late March, and Ortiz has mounts this weekend for the first time in five weeks.)

But they chose to sit. Castellano, one of the most popular riders with fans and clients in North America, didn’t get that choice. In the Thoroughbred jockey colony, he’s now the face of the pandemic, since he’s the one who tested positive, but he’ll also become the face of the response, since he followed doctors’ orders and can speak first-hand to the fear and uncertainty that grips anyone in that position.

“My best example is myself,” Castellano said by phone on Tuesday afternoon. “I came out positive. Maybe you have coronavirus, and you don’t know. That’s what happened to me. You can have it and not have any symptoms. And everybody is different.

“And thank God. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t complain. It’s scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen. But I went through it, I’m done and moving forward and I’m able to finally work now.”

After riding at Gulfstream on March 15, Castellano was in New York with his family, wife Abby, daughters Kayla (14) and Sienna (11) and son Brady (7), for a few days before he was to return to Florida to ride on the Florida Derby card at Gulfstream on March 28.

The track wasn’t allowing incoming jockeys on the premises until they were tested, and Castellano’s test in Florida came back positive on Wednesday, March 25. So he served a two-week quarantine at the apartment of his 64-year-old mother Neila, who has lived in south Florida since 2001.

With plans to ride Farmington Road in the May 2 Arkansas Derby as well was 2019 2-year-old filly champion British Idiom in the Fantasy at Oaklawn on May 1, Castellano returned to New York on April 7, but reversed course back to Florida two days later when Oaklawn said it wanted anyone coming from New York to quarantine outside the state for two weeks.

Two days later, he watched Farmington Road, who still needs a good chunk of qualifying points to get a spot in the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, finish second in the Oaklawn Stakes with Martin Garcia in the irons.

During this extended down time, Castellano has been keeping up his usual running schedule, has been doing his homework watching the races and was able to start working horses in the mornings at Payson Park.

“It’s hard, because all your attention is on something you love,” he said. “I love racing, and I can always watch it and see how horses perform and how different jockeys are riding. You pay attention. You follow it every step, you don’t miss anything, especially when you’re not doing anything. You handicap the races, you watch the big races, every single race.

“And I work a couple in the morning and keep your mind sharp and in the game so that when you return to perform, you’re good to go. And I’ll tell you this, when you ride horses, it’s like riding a bike. You never forget. You can be out for a long time, but when you get on a horse, you know what to do. You’re a professional. I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and I’ve been around a lot of horses.”

Castellano won four straight Eclipse Awards as North America’s most outstanding jockey from 2013-16, and was inducted into the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame in 2017.

He has done some of his best work at Saratoga, where he won the riding title in 2013 and 2014 and has won a record six Travers, most recently in 2018 on Catholic Boy. Since the Travers was first run in 1864, no jockey has won it more than four times.

With so many tracks closed, there are much fewer opportunities for mounts for the riders, but Castellano will be in high demand from frequent trainer clients like Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown when he’s back.

After the recent COVID-19 scare, he’s thankful for every morning he can just get up and go about his routine. He was almost entirely asymptomatic before and throughout his quarantine, but that didn’t remove the fear factor.

“I couldn’t believe it when they told me,” he said. “I’ve been running, 24 hours before that, I was running three miles in 90 degrees outside, with humidity. And I was breathing perfect, everything. So then I was quarantined for 14 days, I’ve been jogging around my house, keeping in shape.

“Mentally, don’t get me wrong, it upset me a lot, because you go through every single day, ‘Oh, it’s going to happen tomorrow, maybe it’s going to happen the next day.’ The doctor said, ‘No, don’t worry, it’s not going to be the first couple days, maybe it’s going to be later on.’ And you go through every … single … day, that challenge.

“The first thing when you wake up is breathing … ‘Pfff, oh, man, thank God I can breathe.’ Then I’m checking my body, ‘Oh, OK, I’m good with my chest.’ Let’s wait ’til tomorrow, and tomorrow do it again. It challenges you. You’re insecure. That’s the first time in my life facing that.”

Besides the support of his mother, Castellano said Abby and the kids have been a constant source of encouragement.

He can’t help but be worried for them when he’s down in Florida, but everybody is adjusting to the times and the circumstances as well as they can.

“You’ve got to give my wife a lot of credit for the way she carried herself,” Castellano said. “She’s a strong lady. Tough. I give all the credit to her, and my mom.

“My mom is taking care of me, and she wasn’t afraid at all, when I told her the truth. I came up positive, and I told her we needed to be separated, and she said, ‘You’re my son, we’ll get through it together, and everything’s going to be fine. I promise.’

“My wife calls me every day, and I’m kind of worried, for her to be by herself, if something happens to my wife. I don’t know when I got it. Maybe I could’ve gotten it the week before [when he was in New York] and didn’t realize it. So I was dealing with that, and thank God they’re fine, they’re OK. I’m blessed to have a wonderful woman like her who is strong and positive.”

Castellano will continue to get on some horses during morning training hours in Florida, then get in his own runs to stay fit.

He’ scheduled to fly to Arkansas on April 30, when he’ll be reunited with Farmington Road and British Idiom, who was second in the Grade II Rachel Alexandra with Castellano in the saddle on Feb. 15, her 2020 debut.

Asked about the still-vague prospects for one of his favorite times of the year, the annual Saratoga meet, he chose to do what his recent scare has reinforced: Don’t look too far ahead.

“Believe me, that’s a tough question, because we don’t have the answer. Nobody has the answer, not even the President of the United States. Let’s put it that way,” he said with a laugh. “We go day by day. Week by week.

“I’m down here in Florida, and they’re having a big argument if they open the beaches, or they don’t open. Those two towns, Broward and Miami, they’re fighting each other, one says yeah, one says no. Nobody has an idea what’s going to happen in one week. I don’t know.

“Of course, safety first, because we don’t want to see people die, like in New York. Life is first, and hopefully we can control this virus and get it down as  much as possible and move forward. Because it’s painful, for every single one. And in different ways, the economy, the emotions, and life and everything. But we’ve got to be strong and positive, because this thing is not going to be forever.”

Reach Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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