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Racing News

Published Apr 7, 2024
by Mike Henry
Jesus Castanon

Before arriving at Tampa Bay Downs last fall for the current meet, Jesus Castanon discussed the possibility of retirement with his wife, former jockey Rolanda Simpson.

“This sport gets in your blood, and I don’t know what I’ll do when I decide to stop,” said Castanon, who has ridden 2,721 winners since competing in his first race in 1989 at Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico, a week after his 16th birthday. “But I thank God for the time He’s given me and for still being able to ride at my age.

“I told my wife I was going to keep going as long as God keeps me healthy.”

Any further retirement talk will have to wait. Castanon, 51, is headed back to Kentucky next week to begin final preparations for riding West Saratoga in the 150th Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on May 4 at Churchill Downs.

Castanon has ridden the 3-year-old colt in each of his last two races, a third-place finish here on Feb. 10 in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes and a second on March 23 in the Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks on the all-weather track at Turfway Park. He is scheduled to work West Saratoga on Saturday at Keeneland.

If they make it to the race, Castanon will be flooded by memories of his only previous Kentucky Derby 13 years ago. He led into the stretch aboard 23-1 shot Shackleford before settling for a fourth-place finish, 3 ½ lengths behind winner Animal Kingdom. Two weeks later, the Dale Romans-trained Shackleford and Castanon won the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore.

The following year, Castanon won the Grade II Churchill Downs Stakes on Shackleford and the Grade I Clark Handicap in the horse’s final career start. Time will tell if West Saratoga is that sort of racehorse.

“God put this horse in my path, and I just feel very happy and blessed for this opportunity,” said Castanon, a two-time Tampa Bay Downs riding champion. “I never thought I was going to be able to get another horse like this. I’m excited for that day to come and to be able to get it done.”

West Saratoga is owned by Eloy, Ariz., resident Harry Veruchi, who purchased him for $11,000 upon the recommendation of trainer Larry Demeritte at the 2022 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Although he hasn’t won since capturing the Grade III Iroquois Stakes as a 2-year-old on Sept. 16 at Churchill (he is 2-for-10, with five seconds), his connections believe he is coming up to the Run for the Roses as well as can be hoped for.

“He ran a good race in the (Sam F.) Davis, but he was a different horse for the Jeff Ruby,” Castanon said. “The way he was acting and looking at people. … his eyes were shining and his ears were going around. He was ready to do it.

“When I got to the quarter pole, I figured he was going to be able to hold on, but the other horse (winner Endlessly) went past us like a train. But my horse ran a winning race.”

Demeritte and Veruchi are excited to have a jockey of Castanon’s caliber and classic-race experience aboard for the journey. “We’ve believed in this horse the whole time, and having Jesus come aboard was the final piece to get us where we want to be,” said Demeritte, a product of Nassau in the Bahamas.

“A jockey with his experience, he can pretty much tell right away what he’s sitting on. Jesus worked him 6 furlongs a couple of weeks before the Jeff Ruby and they didn’t go fast (1:18 4/5), but when he came back he told me ‘Don’t worry. He’ll show up on race day.’ As a trainer, that’s the confidence and knowledge you look for.

“I wouldn’t change my rider with anyone else in the race,” Demeritte added.

Veruchi, a retired used-car dealer who owns condominium offices in Colorado, hit it off with Castanon from the time they played golf with Demeritte and the rider’s agent, Steve Worsley, before the Sam F. Davis.

“I’ve really been impressed by him and his attitude about the horse,” Veruchi said. “He keeps telling us this horse is going to get better and better. After the Davis, he said ‘I love this horse. This horse is going to go somewhere.’

“I thought, man, he has confidence. We better keep him.”

Veruchi didn’t mind getting schooled on the golf course by Castanon, who shot a 77 on the demanding The Club at Cheval course in nearby Lutz. “We didn’t talk a whole lot about racing – it was just four guys playing golf,” Veruchi said. “He’s a super-nice guy who came by the barn every morning when we were in Tampa, and we talk on the phone and text often. He’s a great individual and as a jockey, you know he is going to give you 110 percent when that gate opens.”

Demeritte has known Castanon for years, but they didn’t join forces with West Saratoga until shortly before the Sam F. Davis. Castanon worked closely with the trainer and his assistant and exercise rider, Dante Lowery, to determine what West Saratoga (named after the street in Englewood, Colo., where Veruchi grew up) required to move forward.

“Before I got on him the first time in the morning, Dante told me exactly how he was, and everything he told me happened,” Castanon said. “It’s a good thing when you click with the people who know the horse best.”

Thus far, their planning appears to be working, although his third and second-place finishes have whetted the appetites of all for a shocking victory in the world’s most famous horse race.

“Our whole team has been working hard to enable this horse to put his best foot forward on May 4,” Demeritte said. “I’m proud and thankful for all they’ve done to get to this point.”

Castanon hopes to draw upon his previous experience with Shackleford to deal with the hoopla and pressure of Derby week and the moment when the 20 entrants begin the post parade to the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

After waiting 22 years from the start of his riding career to savor his sport’s wildest ride, this chance another 13 years later could feel like an out-of-body experience. His first Kentucky Derby came about 6 months after his father, Jesus Castanon, Sr., died; the emotions will be swirling just as fast, for those memories and so many other reasons.

“To walk through that tunnel on my horse and hear that song, I know it’s going to hit me. But it’s funny – once you get in the gate, you just think it’s like any other race,” Castanon said.  

Around the oval. The annual Oldsmar Cup turned into a thriller, with race favorite Eyes On the King rallying for a 1-length victory from pacesetter Drama Chorus in the 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claiming turf contest under a well-judged ride by Antonio Gallardo.

The victory was the fourth from 12 starts for Eyes On the King, a multiple stakes-placed 4-year-old colt owned by M Racing Group and trained by Mark Casse.

Dan Saracki, Oldsmar’s Mayor, presented the winning trophy to the connections of Eyes On the King after the Oldsmar Cup, contested as the fourth race. The event commemorates the symbiotic, nearly century-long relationship between the City of Oldsmar and Tampa Bay Downs.

Angel Arroyo swept the early daily double on today’s card. He won the first race on Three Wolves, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Bill Recio and Gene Recio and trained by Julie Stormfelt. Arroyo added the second race with Yes I’m a Beast, a 5-year-old Florida-bred gelding owned by Daniel L. Walters and trained by Rohan Crichton.

Trainer Juan Carlos Avila won both halves of the late daily double. He captured the eighth race with Raichu, a 3-year-old filly owned by New Horizon Farm and ridden by Melissa Iorio. That was the 40th career triumph for Iorio, whose apprentice weight allowance was reduced from 7 to 5 pounds accordingly.

Avila added the ninth race on the turf with Le Griffon, a 4-year-old colt owned by De Luca and Sons Stable and ridden by Marcos Meneses. That was one of two winners today for Meneses, who won the third race on 4-year-old Florida-bred gelding Cajun Hope for owners William Churly and Shadybrook Farm and trainer Michael Yates.

Thoroughbred racing continues Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:20 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.



Jesus Castanon

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