The broad smile of jockey Javier Castellano is warm and genuine. It is no toothy byproduct of his overwhelming success in the saddle. Rather, it is a true reflection of the individual at his core—a native of the Venezuelan municipality of Maracaibo, nicknamed La Tierra del Sol Amada or "The Land of the Beloved Sun."
You can make the case that Castellano, 39, is the best jockey in the world today and has been so for the past several years. He's won the Eclipse Award for outstanding jockey four consecutive times (2013-16).
Often, when a rider strings together such accomplishments, he is buoyed by being aboard a generational champion, a singular horse who elevates his earnings and keeps his name in the national consciousness. Castellano, however, has seemingly done it with a different tack. He has brought his immense talents to a wide variety of runners, from maidens to graded contenders, getting the very best out of Thoroughbreds—short, long, dirt, and turf.
One of Castellano's best assets as a rider is his mind. He has dedicated himself to studying races. A virtual chess master on horseback, Castellano spends time nearly every day watching video of both his own mounts and his opponents.
When a recent offer arrived to ride a devout closer in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes, Castellano accepted without hesitation. Though he'd never been on Gunnevera, he had already observed the runner’s tendencies and almost instantly had a game plan in mind.
The result was a dominating victory, one in which the horse ran to his strengths, with Castellano bringing to the table his unique talents to observe and judge pace dynamics.
Castellano comes from a family of riders. His father (Abel Castellano Sr.), uncle, and a brother (Abel Castellano Jr.) have all been jockeys. So his genes and upbringing helped open the door to his incredible success. But as a youngster, Castellano was first enamored with the notion of bringing his natural athleticism to the baseball diamond.
Though his father was his hero at home, Castellano also idolized a pair of famous Venezuelan shortstops from his region—Dave Concepción, a nine-time Major League Baseball All-Star who won World Series championships with the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and 1976; and Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio, a 13-time All-Star who received a 1966 World Series ring with the Baltimore Orioles.
Castellano settled at second base. However, the youngster, who was often riding the bench, soon came to realize that his slender frame wasn’t exactly what baseball coaches desired.
"They were looking for guys with bigger bodies to hit home runs," said Castellano, who stands at 5-foot-1 and weighs 114 pounds. "So I began to think that racing would be a better fit for me."
Abel Castellano Sr., who died in 2000, had reservations about his sons' following in his footsteps.
"My dad didn't want me or my brother to become jockeys, because he knew all of the dangers and the hardships," Castellano said. "But out of love, he taught us how to ride and gave all kinds of good advice. He was the perfect role model."
By 1996 Castellano was one of the leading apprentice riders in Venezuela. That same year his father came out of retirement for a single race to ride against his son.
"He wanted us to ride one race together. It meant a lot to him. We were a very close family," said Castellano, who won the event aboard the heavy favorite.
In 1997 the young rider moved to the U.S., hoping to make a name for himself on the Florida circuit.
"I was alone and spoke practically no English. All I could say was ‘Holiday Inn,'" Castellano recalled. "I got lost my first few days there. I couldn’t even find the restaurant next to my hotel. I had no phone. I was almost in tears, thinking, 'This isn't for me. Maybe I should go back to Venezuela.'"
Castellano overcame his homesickness and won 33 Florida stakes in less than two years before he moved on to New York.
"I wanted to step up," Castellano said. "I wanted to go against the best jockeys and ride the best horses."
"I remember the first time I saw (Ghostzapper). He was a stocky horse, and I worked him as part of a team. To me he felt real lazy. I think he went a slow 1:02 (for five furlongs). Bobby came up to me later and asked, 'You like that horse? Because he's going to be a good one,'" recalled Castellano, who wanted desperately to ride for Frankel's stable in the afternoons.
"I told him, 'Yes, Bobby. You’re right.' And he was. (Ghostzapper) was a different horse in the afternoon. First, he won for me at Belmont and then again at Saratoga. After the Saratoga win, Bobby told me that Jerry Bailey wanted to ride the horse. But Bobby said he'd told Jerry, 'It's too late now. This is Javier's horse.' That made me feel great."
A year later Castellano guided Ghostzapper to victory in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (G1) at Lone Star Park.
Castellano, who has won more than 4,700 races in his career, continues to refine his skills on racing's biggest stages. He has recorded memorable high-profile rides on Cloud Computing, Honor Code , Stay Thirsty , Bellamy Road , Cathryn Sophia, and Dayatthespa.
When Barbaro broke down during the 2006 Preakness Stakes (G1), Castellano made sure to display deference to the injured Thoroughbred after riding Bernardini to a convincing victory. Later on that season Castellano guided the eventual 3-year-old champion Bernardini to wins in the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2), Travers Stakes (G1), and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1).
In 2015 Castellano established a new single-season jockey earnings mark with $28,120,809, which broke the record he previously set in 2013.
It’s a good thing the Hall's plaques don’t include a likeness of its members, though. Because capturing in bronze the warmth of Castellano's smile would have been a near impossible endeavor.