Javier Castellano buys you a drink, then wraps the glass in a napkin so your hands don't get cold. If you're standing and he's sitting, he jumps up to offer his chair. In the paddock, greeting owners, he doffs his helmet with remarkable chivalry. And he loves puppies and kittens, which adds to his delightful personality. We've dubbed him the most charming jockey riding in this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
But don't let Castellano's guileless attitude fool you. Underneath that sweet persona is a steely competitor whose savvy riding skills have brought victories in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), Travers (gr. I), Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), Carter Handicap (gr. I), Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT), and other significant events.
The son of a former jockey who passed away in 2000, Castellano got his start in Venezuela in 1996, moved to the United States a few months later in June 1997, and scored his first win at Calder on July 31 of that year. He moved to New York in 2001 at the advice of then-agent Steve Adika, and found immediate success on that circuit. He counts riding titles at Aqueduct, Tropical-at-Calder, and Hialeah among his accomplishments. Castellano's uncle was also a jockey, and his brother Abel Jr. rides on the East Coast.
This year's running of the Derby will be Castellano's third; he finished 15th last year aboard Bwana Bull and was seventh on Bellamy Road in 2005. This year, he rides Big Truck for trainer Barclay Tagg.
Born: Oct. 23, 1977, Maracaibo, Venezuela
Residence: Garden City, N.Y.
Family: Wife Abby; daughter Kayla Marie
Favorite sport: "Baseball. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a baseball player, but I grew up and I didn’t grow up enough."
Favorite food: "I like everything—steak, fish, sushi—you name it."
Most hated chore: "I like to do everything at my house. I guess laundry can be tough, but I like to be around the house, organizing things. I travel to a lot of different places, so it's nice to be home, and I don't mind doing what needs to be done."
I can't live without: "My cell phone."
The fastest I've ever driven was: "About 90 miles per hour, I guess. I won't do it again; I got a ticket."
Another active rider I admire is: "I don’t have anyone specific; they’re all good. It could be Edgar Prado, could be John Velazquez, could be (Garrett) Gomez, I don’t have any one to say, 'That’s my favorite; that’s my hero.' It used to be I could share a lot with Jose Santos, but he doesn’t ride anymore."
If I could trade careers with one pro athlete, I would be: "Major League Mets pitcher Johan Santana. I think he's the best pitcher right now. Alex Rodriguez is famous. They paid a lot of money for him, but they paid a lot of money for Santana even though he's a young kid—I think he's about 25. He's from Venezuela. When I won the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) with Ghostzapper in 2004, the following year, he was athlete of the year in our country and I was second to him. That's when I started to recognize his career, and he was very popular."
One thing I wish the public knew about jockeys: “It's a very risky job, but it's like anything else. To play any sport—soccer, basketball, football—you have to put a lot of effort and risk injuries. In this game, you travel a lot and sacrifice time with your family and try to do the best you can. Still, we love it. I am very thankful to God to be successful, and I'm very proud of myself as well."
The best part about winning the Derby this year would be: "No question about it, dedicating the race to my parents. I'm very thankful for my family and the education they gave me—they taught me a lot of respect for people and taught me how to conduct myself."