If a trainer needs a jockey and Javier Castellano is available, the 36-year-old Venezuelan gets the ride. He’s everybody’s No. 1 draft choice.
Indeed, the 2013 Eclipse Award winner had already raced on four of the eight colts that entered the starting gate Saturday for Gulfstream Park’s 63rd running of the $1 million Florida Derby.
His scouting reports gained first-hand made all the difference when he darted the lightly raced but brilliant 3-year-old Constitution through a narrow gap on the rail and emphatically into the Kentucky Derby picture.
Constitution, owned by Winstar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing and unraced as a 2-year-old, proceeded to edge Fountain of Youth champion Wildcat Red by a head for his third victory in three starts but first in a stakes race.
“I rode Wildcat Red one time [in a 4 3/4-length victory Jan. 1 in the Gulfstream Park Derby], and I learned something,” Castellano said. “Sometimes he comes out a little bit in the stretch”
Constitution had stalked Wildcat Red and General a Rod in the third of their side-by-side and stride-for-stride duels through the first three-quarters of a mile in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Derby prep.
“It’s race-riding,” Castellano said. “Sometimes you have to anticipate what’s going to happen.”
He anticipated correctly and notched his first Florida Derby victory and the second for trainer nonpareil Todd Pletcher, who won with Scat Daddy in 2009.
The victory was the fifth for Castellano and fourth for Pletcher on a loaded 14-race program that produced a wagering handle of $26.8 million.
“I know that ‘Johnny V’ isn’t going to open the rail for anybody,” Castellano said of John Velazquez, the two-time Eclipse Award winner aboard Wildcat Red. “[But] I took a shot and his horse didn’t help him much when he tried to drift a little.”
Velazquez and Wildcat Red did proceed to hook Constitution in a stirring duel that had a jam-packed throng at Gulfstream in an uproar as Constitution finally nosed ahead.
“I saw him coming,” Velazquez said, “but I couldn’t do anything about it. I was trying to close the door, but my horse was getting out [away from the rail], and that was the difference right there.”
Jose Garoffalo, a 50-year-old Venezuelan who traded a possible legal career for one training horses, reveled in Wildcat Red’s performance almost as excitedly as if he had won.
The performance has Garoffalo eagerly anticipating his first start in the storied Kentucky Derby.
“It was a hell of a race,” Garoffalo said. “In a race like that, when you get beat only by a head, you cannot be disappointed. The horse did his job. Johnny tried his best. We fought the good fight.
“I give a lot of credit to Javier Castellano. He was smart enough to take the rail and that was it.”
Castellano not only had ridden Wildcat Red in the Hutcheson but was aboard General a Rod in the Fountain of Youth loss to Wildcat Red. He also rode Florida Derby also-ran Allstar to a second-place finish in a Jan. 4 maiden race.
The nation’s hottest jockey already had eclipsed his own Gulfstream Park riding record before Saturday, but the Florida Derby score increased his victory total to 131 in 428 mounts this meet and his purses to $5,307,822.
Allegiance to Pletcher certainly factored into Castellano’s decision to ride Constitution, whose prior victories had come in a maiden special weight debut and a first-level allowance test.
But Elliott Walder, a successful trainer before he became CEO of Winstar Farm, related Castellano’s reaction after a troubled trip that still produced Constitution’s maiden victory.
The colt broke last in a nine-horse field but rocketed into contention with leaders turning blazing fractions of 22 seconds for the first-quarter and 44 for the half-mile.
“Javier’s expression when he came back to the winner’s circle that day was like, ‘Wow! This is a super horse.’ ”
That said, both Walden and Pletcher knew it was prudent to withhold judgment until Constitution raced in stakes company.
“Any time you step into a Grade 1 race … until you do it, you always have that reservation or you’re not a realist,” Walden said.
Jockeys generally play their cards close to the chest when angling for the best Kentucky Derby mount available. But Castellano did not hesitate.
Asked his Kentucky Derby plans, he grinned, leaned into the microphone and gave a one-word answer: “Constitution.”
Pletcher, who arrived at the postrace media meet late, was informed of Castellano’s certainty, laughed and said, “Hold that [audio] tape.”
He has the No. 1 draft choice to go with a colt with the potential to wear a garland of roses at Churchill Downs.