Among the crowd in the Saratoga Race Course winner’s circle congratulating Ramon Dominguez on Sunday were, of course, dozens of his peers.
Most of them had walked out from the jockeys’ room in silks to hug and pose for pictures with him as he accepted his Eclipse Award as the nation’s best rider in 2012 and the good guy Mike Venezia Award for being . . . well, Ramon Dominguez.
Most poignantly, one rider was in the winner’s circle, anyway, because he had just won on Shankopotamus. Javier Castellano’s smile gleamed through his sweaty face as he shook hands with his fellow Venezuelan and one of his best friends.
The handshake was a passing of the torch, as the retired Dominguez will never ride again, while Castellano is in the midst of clinching the first Saratoga riding title of his career, one year after he was 17 behind Dominguez’s record-setting 68 winners.
Heading into today’s card, Castellano has 54 winners with six racing days left, and, barring injury, will coast to the championship that he covets dearly, especially after having finished in second place the last three years.
“Awesome. I feel so great,” he said on Sunday afternoon, before going out and winning three straight on Shankopotamus,
Kaitlyns Cat and Imagining. “It’s the top riders in the country, and the expectations are very high. You always want to do good. But it’s really hard.
“One thing I don’t forget is I don’t take anything for granted.”
That notion is reinforced on almost a daily basis at the track, and has been brought into stark focus at this meet.
Dominguez was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest riders of all time before being forced to retire due to a head injury suffered at Aqueduct this winter.
Then, Joel Rosario was in a fiercely competitive duel with Castellano for the Saratoga title before being knocked out for the rest of the meet by a broken foot on Aug. 23.
But by then, Castellano had been getting on good horses and winning consistently. He rode four winners that day to increase his lead over Rosario to 49-41.
John Velazquez, who has won Saratoga five times and held the record of 65 (2004) before Dominguez broke it, is in third with 39 victories.
This thing is over, although Castellano, like a pitcher working on a no-hitter, doesn’t want to hear it,
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, congratulations’ and I say, ‘No, no, no, please don’t say that!’ ” he said, laughing. “Johnny is such a great rider. I don’t want to hear that. I’m not a superstitious guy, but I believe anything can happen in this game. We have more days of racing. Yesterday [Saturday] I rode 14 races, the whole card, and didn’t win.”
That was Travers Day, when Castellano had two seconds and two thirds, but no wins. He rode in four graded stakes and did no better than fourth in any of them, finishing fifth in the Travers on Romansh.
But otherwise, he said, the meet has been going as planned by Castellano and his agent, Saratoga Springs native Matt Muzikar.
“The last couple of years, I had a great meet, won a lot of Grade I races and earned a lot of money,” said the 5-foot-1 Castellano, who will turn 36 in October. “But always second, second . . . second was phenomenal last year. It was a career year for Ramon Dominguez. He won six races twice, he broke the winning record with 68. If we took away Ramon Dominguez, I could’ve won galloping the meet. But I was very happy and satisfied the way everything went.
“Unfortunately, I feel bad for Joel, because he’s such a great jockey and such a good person. We’re all friends. We like to be competitive with each other, but at the end of the day, we’re all friends. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt. When I heard the news, I felt so bad. It could happen to me; it could happen to anyone.”
Castellano hasn’t been out of commission due to injury since 2009, when he broke his right shoulder at Gulfstream Park.
After he was out for six weeks, the first mount he was on broke down and had to be euthanized.
Castellano hurt his knee and missed another week and a half.
Otherwise, it’s been a clean slate.
Castellano is essentially the second call rider, behind Velazquez, for trainer Todd Pletcher, and also rides many of the horses trained by Mechanicville native Chad Brown.
Pletcher has a commanding lead to win his 10th Saratoga title and fourth straight, and Brown is in position to finish second for the third year in a row.
Castellano has ridden by far the most horses at the meet, 261, but also has the best percentages — 20 percent winning and 57 percent in the money — of any jockey with at least 100 rides.
“It’s been all good at this meet. One thing is I didn’t have a 3-year-old for the Travers,” said Castellano, who picked up the mount on fifth-place finisher Romansh at the last minute.
“At the beginning of the year, I had a lot of potential for horses, great horses. Normandy Invasion got hurt, Violence got hurt. Palace Malice, I broke his maiden here last year, and Revolutionary got hurt. Those were my 3-year-old campaign. Some of them will come back, but not soon enough for the Travers.”
By far the highlight has been riding Princess of Sylmar, who is owned by Schenectady native Ed Stanco.
She won the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama.
“It’s really exciting to ride those kinds of horses and be part of that team,” Castellano said. “He’s [Stanco] one of the guys who enjoys the game and has so much passion. We like to be involved with the group and be in the winner’s circle with a whole bunch of people. It’s a lot of fun. That’s what we need in this game, to see people like that.”
Castellano and his family frequently spend time with the Dominguezes.
Dominguez had held out hope that he could get back to his job, but never got clearance from his doctors and had to retire.
During this heart-breaking development, he hasn’t granted interviews except for a 13-minute sit-down with former jockey Richard Migliore that can be found on www.nyra.com.
Perhaps no one jockey feels as badly for him as his countryman, Castellano, nor can appreciate how fortunate he is to be able to get on horses every day.
“It was devstating for everyone, family, friends,” Castellano said. “I said anything can happen. It’s sad to see a top rider like that because people say about our sport you’ve been riding good horses, you never get hurt . . . in our sport, anything can happen. You’re always in jeopardy no matter what.
“I feel bad for him, but let’s put it this way, at least he walked away. Thank God, he’s good, health-wise. I’m looking forward to a good time for him. He’s going to change careers, and God is going to bless him and his family.”
In the meantime, Castellano expects to ride Big Sugar Soda in the Grade I Hopeful on closing day, and also lined up the mount on Ron the Greek for Saturday’s Woodward.
He has a substantial lead in the standings, but won’t even think about celebrating until the last card is run on Labor Day.
“I want to wait until the last minute,” he said. “I’m not superstitious, but you’ve been working for a long time to get that, and to me, it’s going to be awesome and really emotional. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been working hard the last couple years, but somebody always stepped up.
“And Johnny is a great rider and gets good business, and when you get hot, you get hot,” he said, grinning and snapping his fingers. “You win two, three races every single day. I don’t want to say something and then the last minute he beats me by one race.”