by Mike Henry

Entering today’s action, the Tampa Bay Downs jockey standings looked as if they were recovered from a time capsule. Tied at the top, with six victories each, were 48-year-old Jesus Castanon and Jose Ferrer, 57.

Between them, they’ve won 7,266 races, been hurt too many times and taken the long walk back to the jockeys’ room too often to mention. Yet each brings the same dedication, the same love for the sport and the horses and considerably more expertise than they first had as promising teenage riders.

Sometimes, they have to pinch themselves looking around at the new kids on the Oldsmar block who seek to knock them off their perches.


Jockeys Jose Ferrer, left, and Jesus Castanon share a light moment before a race on Wednesday

“Every year you have new riders coming in, and this place is very competitive,” Castanon said. “Jose and I were joking about it – you add our ages, and it makes about four of those younger guys.”

Castanon won back-to-back Tampa Bay Downs riding titles in 2004 and 2005, and he spent most of his winters over the next decade competing at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas or south Florida. When he returned here five years ago, the memories of those championship seasons came flooding back.

“When it gets close to Opening Day, I get excited to come here and enjoy the people and the weather and have a happy winter,” said Castanon, who edged Ferrer for the first Salt Rock Tavern Jockey of the Month Award of the meeting by virtue of win percentage (6-for-11 through Wednesday). “This place has been real good to me. I just have to thank all the trainers and owners and people on the backside for their support.”

Castanon also praised his new agent, Bob Jobson, for getting him on the right horses.

The fraternity of Thoroughbred race riders forms one of the strongest bonds in any sport. In October, Castanon had cause to reflect on the unwavering support of his own family when his father-in-law, Rolando Simpson, passed away unexpectedly.

Castanon dedicated the Jockey of the Month Award to the memory of Simpson and his own father, Jesus Castanon, Sr., who died of kidney disease in the fall of 2010, six months before the rider’s victory aboard Shackleford in the Preakness at Pimlico.

A former trainer, the elder Castanon gave Jesus – the second-youngest of 10 children – and his brothers Antonio and Jose German the green light to ride races. Both siblings are still in the business, with Jose German working here as the assistant to trainer Jordan Blair and Antonio galloping horses for Godolphin in Lexington, Ky.

Castanon’s wife, retired jockey Rolanda Simpson, is back home in Shepherdsville, Ky., with three of their four children and two grandchildren. Oldest son Micah is a law student.

Castanon turned to his family to shine a light in 2015 when he was injured twice in a period of two months, the second time incurring a broken tailbone and a concussion in an accident at Ellis Park in Kentucky.

“The second time made me think,” Castanon recounted later. “I looked at my children and thought, do I really want to keep doing it? But riding horses is what I know. My wife was basically with me the whole time I was recuperating, and she gave me a lot of encouragement and told me that whatever I wanted to do, she was going to be there for me.

“This is the main thing I have in life and I love doing it, so I knew I was doing the right thing.”

One of the main things his experience has taught Castanon is not to force the issue. “I feel if I get too excited (during a race), I kind of lose the touch. So I just go with the motion and don’t over-think things,” Castanon said. “I do what I know to do on a horse, and the results have been working out really well.”

Castanon clinched the Jockey of the Month honor with his winning ride on 3-year-old gelding Styner for owner-trainer Juan Arriagada in the eighth race on Wednesday. Content to trail all but one horse early, Castanon shook up his mount approaching the 3/8-mile pole of the 1-mile turf event. Riding in perfect harmony with Styner’s instinctual desire, he reached the front a couple of jumps from the wire to win by a half-length at odds of 11-1.

“It was (Styner’s) first time racing on the grass, and after I worked him I knew he was going to be able to run. I knew he would be a little sharp from the gate, so I wanted to kind of take that away from him,” Castanon said. “He was able to settle down behind horses and when I got him to pick it up and swing to the outside and get in the clear, he came running,” said Castanon, who won three races on the card.

Trainer Jordan Blair, who counts Castanon as his “go-to” rider at Tampa Bay Downs, has named him to ride his filly Devine Charger in Saturday’s $100,000 Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. “He has been a gifted rider his whole career,” Blair said. “His racing IQ is very high and we usually don’t have to discuss much before a race because we’re on the same page.

“He puts horses in good spots during a race and can come back with good information about the race and the horse. He’s just a talented rider and I don’t think there is anyone better at Tampa Bay.”

Long-time Tampa Bay Downs race-goers know how fortunate they are to watch and wager on such dedicated veterans as Castanon, Ferrer and Daniel Centeno, but the street runs both ways. Those guys love coming to Tampa Bay Downs each winter to win races and school youngsters.

The relationships feel just like family.

Cotillion Festival Day. Saturday’s 10-race Cotillion Festival Day card, which begins at 12:10 p.m., is comprised entirely of 2-year-old races, highlighted by a pair of $100,000, 6-furlong stakes.  The Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies is the seventh race and the Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-old colts and geldings is the ninth race.

The Sandpiper has drawn a field of 10, with Gary Barber’s Florida-bred Strategic Bird established as the 2-1 morning-line favorite. Antonio Gallardo will ride for Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse.

There are also 10 entered in the Inaugural, with Concrete Glory, a gelding owned by Carl L. Hess, Jr., and trained by Gerald Brooks, the 5-2 morning-line favorite. Gallardo has the riding assignment.

The Cotillion Festival Day card has drawn 100 entries, making for an afternoon of exciting competition and excellent betting races.

“I love it,” said trainer Jordan Blair, who will send out J D Farms’ Devine Charger in the Sandpiper, of the full slate of juvenile races. “It gives you a glimpse of the future, and you get to see horses that could make an impact in bigger races as 3-year-olds.”

For record-keeping purposes, all Thoroughbreds celebrate their “birthdays” on Jan. 1.

“10 Days of Festivus Challenge.” Saturday also marks the start of the “10 Days of Festivus Challenge,” an online handicapping contest that runs from Saturday through Dec. 24. There is no cost to enter and handicappers of all experience levels get to test their skills against some of the best.

Participants must register by 10:30 a.m. on the first day of the contest. A rule change from previous Festivus contests requires all players to select a horse in both “Challenge Races” throughout the duration of the contest (players picking a horse in only one race will not be penalized, but of course lose a chance to increase their bankrolls).

The contest is a lot of fun and offers a first-place prize of $1,000. Each player begins the “10 Days of Festivus Challenge” with a free lifeline, and players who get off to a slow start may purchase additional lifelines as the contest moves forward.

All wagers are mythical, with results determined from a $2 mythical win-place-show wager on players’ picks. A full set of rules is available on the contest website, which can be accessed at (click Festivus Challenge on the home page, then click “Create an account” near the top right of the contest page).

The contest focus is on picking winners, so it is likely to produce several “diamond-in-the-rough” contenders who know how to map out a race and factor in all the variables that make handicapping such a fun and challenging endeavor.

Around the oval. Hector Rafael Diaz, Jr., rode back-to-back winners today. He captured the fifth race on the turf aboard Kitten Tales, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Waterville Lake Stables and trained by Arnaud Delacour. Diaz added the sixth race via disqualification when 3-year-old gelding Mr. Einstein was elevated to first after Super Shoes, the first under the wire, was judged to interfere through the stretch. Mr. Einstein is owned by Sharyn Wasiluk and his trainer Peter Wasiluk, Jr.

Tampa Bay Downs currently races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule, with a special Thursday, Dec. 23 card and Sundays added to the mix on Dec. 26.

Tampa Bay Downs is closed on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and Easter Sunday, April 17. Otherwise, the track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.