New York-based Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano realized a lifelong dream on Saturday when he guided Mage to victory in the Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Castellano is the second-leading rider of all-time by purse earnings with more than $382 million banked across a remarkable 5,648 wins. And yet, after winning the first leg of the Triple Crown, he was back at Belmont Park Sunday morning preparing to ride six mounts on the nine-race card.
“It’s such a great feeling,” Castellano said. “I didn’t want to go to bed last night. My family was there and we just stayed up talking and talking.”
Castellano was accompanied to the Derby by his wife, Abby, and their daughters Kayla,  and Sienna , and their 10-year-old son Brady, who was thrilled to meet two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Patrick Mahomes after the superstar athlete delivered the ‘riders up’ call.
“I woke up early this morning to catch our flight home and my whole family was together,” Castellano said. “I asked them, ‘Wow, did that really happen or was it a dream?’ And they said, ‘No, you did it, you did it!’”
Castellano had made 15 previous Kentucky Derby appearances with his best result coming in 2018, finishing third aboard Audible in a race won by eventual Triple Crown-winner Justify. Among his many previous chances was Bellamy Road, the 2005 Wood Memorial-winner, who finished seventh as the favorite in that year’s Derby captured by 50-1 shot Giacomo.
The veteran rider, a four-time Eclipse Award-winner as Outstanding Jockey from 2013-16, said the victory was made all the more meaningful by having his family there for support.
“A while ago, I was the most successful jockey in the country. I won the Eclipse Award four years in a row and I enjoyed those moments, but my kids were so little they didn’t understand what was going on,” Castellano said. “Now, they understand the sacrifice we make when I get up in the morning to work a horse and go away to travel and I’m missing birthdays and games. These are the sacrifices we make to have a better life. Life is great – it’s beautiful, but you have to earn it, too.”
The 45-year-old native of Maracaibo, Venezuela, picked up the mount aboard Mage, trained by his fellow countryman Gustavo Delgado, when Luis Saez, who guided the chestnut to a runner-up effort to Forte in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, committed to Tapit Trice.
Despite starting a step flow, Castellano executed a dream trip for the lightly-raced Mage, angling to the rail from post 8-of-18 and settling in 16th position as Verifying and Kingsbarns rattled through swift splits of 22.35 seconds and 45.73 over the fast track. Castellano, feeling the pressure of the advancing Tapit Trice, got his charge moving from the two-path into the final turn before angling out five-wide at the three-eighths.
“I knew my horse wouldn’t break fast because he didn’t in his last two starts in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby,” Castellano said. “My goal was to break OK and try to let him develop. The difference with my horse is that he only ran three times. He never ran as a 2-year-old. I had to be patient. If he breaks slow and I put him in the race, you will blow the race.”
Castellano had Mage seven-wide as the field straightened away and set his sights on Two Phil’s, who had taken command after a mile in 1:36.06.
“The next challenge was going to be the second part of the race when those horses start backing up and getting tired – that’s when I have to be aware and not get stuck in traffic and lose momentum,” Castellano said. “Luckily, I followed the right horses and moved up a little bit and BOOM from the quarter-pole to the finish line, I felt I was going to win. I felt that acceleration when I asked him and he took off.”
Two Phil’s dug in gamely but as he reached the furlong marker, Mage’s momentum would not be denied and Castellano guided his charge to a historic one-length score in a final time of 2:01.57.
“For one moment, I got worried a little bit because Two Phil’s was still there,” Castellano said. “I thought my horse was going to blow by the field but he was still there, but then I switched the stick to my left hand and he broke again and he opened up and I knew. Oh my God, I did it. Thank God. It’s the race I’ve been trying to win my whole career.”
The rider and his family were deluged with well-wishers reaching out by phone, email and social media.
“The Kentucky Derby is the biggest race in the world and my name is at the top right now and everyone knows who I am. It’s amazing. My kids feel proud of their Dad,” Castellano said. “We live in Garden City and it’s a small community and everyone grew up together and knows about racing. To win the Kentucky Derby is huge for the kids. My little boy told me that all his friends were texting him and the principal sent an email to us. It’s special for them. I’m so proud.”
Castellano, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017, holds the distinction of a record six Grade 1 Travers wins.
In 2020, he guided the Delgado-trained Caracaro to a runner-up effort to New York-bred Tiz the Law in the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga Race Course, but was denied a chance at Derby glory in the pandemic-altered Triple Crown when the horse was injured in a workout one week before Authentic captured the “Run for the Roses” on September 5.
Castellano landed 13th in that year’s Derby aboard Money Moves and in November the veteran rider would have hip surgery to clear up a lingering issue. It was slow going for Castellano on his return, but he switched agents to P.J. Campo later that year and his business has improved steadily since.
He won 105 races from 770 starts in 2021 and improved on his totals to notch 163 wins from 969 mounts last year. The progress has continued into his current campaign with 53 wins in the bank and a significant milestone reached.
“The last couple years were lean and it slowed down a little bit. It’s hard,” Castellano said. “No matter all those races you won. All the Grade 1s, the Breeders’ Cups…all that matters is what you did today. It’s hard because you have to maintain.
“You can feel like they don’t believe in you anymore. That’s the toughest part for a jockey – the mental,” he continued. “To win races, you have to be physically strong but most important is the mental. You have to get through those tough times in your life when they forget about who you are.”
But Delgado and the Mage ownership team of OGMA Investments, Ramiro Restrepo, Sterling Racing and CMNWLTH did not forget about Castellano.
“He’s one of the people who gave me a second opportunity,” said Castellano of Delgado. “They could have picked anybody else, but luckily I was open. It’s special because of the connection with the Venezuelan people. He’s known me since I was a little kid. My Dad rode horses for him and the exercise rider [J.J. Delgado] that gallops the horse, he rode with my Dad in Venezuela.”
The 12-time Breeders’ Cup winner, who won the Preakness with Bernardini  and Cloud Computing , said he would love to complete a personal Triple Crown by riding his first Belmont Stakes winner.
“To win the Belmont Stakes here would mean a lot to me and my family. We’ve lived here in New York for many years. My kids grew up here,” said Castellano, who has completed the exacta on three occasions in the “Test of the Champion” aboard Stay Thirsty , Commissioner  and Destin .
And Castellano believes Mage, who will first have a date in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes on May 20 at Pimlico Race Course, has the ability to travel 12 furlongs in the Belmont Stakes and perhaps a chance at his own Triple Crown glory.
“He has a lot of potential. You can see that the way he ran in the Kentucky Derby in just the fourth time he has run. He competed with the best horses in the country,” Castellano said. “Now, we have to see how he improves each race. He has the talent and he has a good mind. He can run all day long. He has everything, it’s just how well he progresses every race.”