Jock Agent Cooper Has Castanon's Back
Photo: Dave Harmon
Jesus Castanon, who is represented by Dennis Cooper.

What the average racing fan witnessed in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Dennis Cooper has known for a long time: jockey Jesus Castanon can flat out ride.

Cooper is Castanon’s agent, and has been since 2009. Prior to handling the assignments for the Churchill Downs-based rider, Cooper was a trainer on the Midwest circuit for nearly 20 years and has been a jock’s agent for longer than that, booking mounts for top riders such as Mark Guidry, Rene Douglas, and Shaun Bridgmohan.

The 38-year-old Castanon nearly schooled 18 other riders in the Derby as he nursed the speed of Shackleford   through ridiculous early splits of :23.24, :48.63, and 1:13.40 while still holding the lead after a mile in 1:37.49. It was only in the final eighth of a mile where the chestnut colt was overtaken by Animal Kingdom  , and he held tough to miss second by a length behind Nehro and Mucho Macho Man.

“In the Derby, you couldn’t get a better ride,” Cooper said. “I had people call me from all over the world. I had every news station and just everybody who thought about watching a horse race…”

Castanon came back two weeks later with even a better ride in the Preakness. This time he took it to his 13 rivals, forcing a quick pace of :22.69, :46.87, and 1:12.01 in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness and held off the late charge of Animal Kingdom to win the second leg of the Triple Crown by a half-length.

Castanon will be in New York to ride Shackleford again in the third leg of the Triple Crown, the June 11 Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

While popping a few buttons with pride, Cooper doesn’t think his rider—or other riders in the Midwest for that matter—gets the respect they’re due.

“Now, if that had been (Javier) Castellano or (Jose) Lezcano, it would have been the most magnificent thing you’d ever seen, but it was just an accident when some guy from the Midwest did it,” he said. “The point I’m trying to make is if you’re not riding on one of the two coasts, you’ve got no shot. I hear this everyday…the most underrated rider in the world is Jesus. I hear it from everybody.

“Mark (Guidry) was never good enough to ride on TV; he was never a TV rider, like Jesus is not, and you can put that in print,” Cooper said emphatically. “They think because they can ride in New York and California on TV they can ride…”

Cooper, who lives in Chicago, took out his trainer’s license in 1966 and had his share of good horses in Illinois and Kentucky. He noted he had several good clients, listing owner Glen Bromagen “as good as there is.” One of the better horses he had with Bromagen was Shilling, winner of Sportsman’s Park’s Thomas D. Nash Memorial Stakes and runner-up in the Bashford Manor Stakes at Churchill in the early 1980s.

Changing careers, Cooper may have jumped from the frying pan into the fire to become a jock’s agent. But he’s put in his time and knows his business.

“This is a very cutthroat business and it’s very tough,” he said. “And there’s no better at this than me. There’s none. You’re talking to as good as it gets.”

He’s also put his riders up on some pretty big horses.

“Mark (Guidry) and I rode Black Tie Affair, Buck’s Boy, Meafara…I don’t know who all,” he said. “We also rode Stalwars.”

Stalwars raced for John Franks and won 17 of 79 races and earned more than $1.2 million in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Guidry was aboard for one of Stalwars' two wins in the National Jockey Club Handicap (gr. III).

Black Tie Affair, Buck’s Boy, and Meafara went on to be Breeders’ Cup horses. Black Tie Affair won the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) and was named Horse of the Year and Buck’s Boy won the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) and was champion Turf male. Meafara was beaten a neck twice in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I): by Thirty Slews in’92 and by Cardmania the following year.

“Mark broke his collarbone (in 1992) and I’m convinced to this day that if he’d been aboard, she would have won,” Cooper said.

Guidry, who retired in 2007, ranks 24th all-time by North America wins with 5,044. His mounts earned more than $100 million. However, his chance at reaching racing’s Hall of Fame—along with other Midwest riders—are slim according to Cooper.

“People have no idea what they’re watching. If they’re not on TV every week or riding in New York or California…believe me,” he said. “You don’t see David Gall in the Hall of Fame. You don’t see Larry Snyder in the Hall of Fame. Gall’s won 7,000 races (7,396; fifth all-time); Larry’s won damn near that many (6,388)…not even a mention.”

While riding at Churchill Downs, Castanon does get mounts for Hall of Fame trainers such as Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey. Cooper has been working the phones with trainers to get mounts for his rider while he’s in New York for Belmont week.

“Jesus leaves Monday for New York; you’ll see him there,” Cooper assures.

One figure you won’t see in New York for the Belmont is Cooper. He will remain in Louisville and watch the Belmont—just as he does every other race Castanon rides in—from his hotel room. And regardless of what happens in the Belmont, Cooper will have Castanon and their business moving ahead.

“I don’t look back; I’ve never looked back in my whole life,” Cooper said. “I don’t even have a rear-view mirror in my truck. It’s all forward for me.”

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