Jockeying for position at the Spa

Tight competition for Saratoga rider title

BY MIKE MACADAM Gazette Sportswriter
 SARATOGA SPRINGS — Feel free to call the Saratoga Race Course training title a lock, even though there are 18 racing days left.
 Chad Brown not only has a seemingly insurmountable gap on the competition, he’s on pace to break the meet record for victories by a trainer.
 The chase for the award named after “The King of Saratoga,” Angel Cordero Jr., is an entirely different story, as the jockeys continue to jockey for position in the standings.
 With 32 winners after sweeping the last three races on Wednesday’s card, Irad Ortiz Jr. has the upper hand for now, but there’s a small crowd behind him that got a little more tightly crowded on Wednesday.
 That group includes 40-year-old Javier Castellano, who won back-to-back riding titles in 2013-14, but has finished behind the Ortiz brothers the last three years. Jose Ortiz has won the last two, and Irad won it in 2015, when Castelllano had unprecedented success in the Grade I races at Saratoga.
 “They’re all good,” Castellano said Wednesday morning. “They all have ability and skill and perform very well. We are at the top of the game here. This is the major league compared to the other tracks, and no one is better than everybody else. This game is about opportunity, the opportunity to get on the better horses.”
 Although 2015 marked the end of Castellano’s two-year hold on the riding championship, it may have been the best Saratoga season of the 2017 Racing Hall of Fame inductee’s career.
 He collected six of the 17 Grade I races on the calendar while becoming the first jockey in the history of the track to sweep the Whitney, Alabama and Travers, beating Triple Crown winner American Pharoah aboard Keen Ice. Castellano also won the A.G. Vanderbilt, Woodward and Hopeful.
 “We came here with high expectations, but we didn’t expect to win all five of the top races of the meet,” he said. “It’s impossible. Richie Migliore came to me and said, ‘Do you realize what you did? You’re the only one to win the Whitney, Alabama and Travers in one meet.’ I said, ‘Really?’ Those things, you don’t realize it in the moment.”
 Besides the Ortiz brothers, the young guns include Luis Saez, Manny Franco and Ricardo Santana Jr. Franco won three of the first four races on Wednesday to get to 20, and Castellano won two to get to 26.
 Among Saez’s 23 winners is the Grade II Amsterdam aboard Promises Fulfilled; Franco, who won three of the first four races on Wednesday’s card, won the Grade III Lake George on Daddy Is a Legend; and Santana has a solid Travers contender in Tenfold, who won the Grade II Jim Dandy.
 Saez is well on pace for his best Saratoga season. He had 35 winners in 2015.
 “I’ve been working hard every day,” Saez said. “The horses have been running good for me. Every year, I learn something different about Saratoga. I have more experience here and I just keep trying. Hopefully, I can continue to do well.”
 “As the years go by, the young guys will realize more how important it is to win the big races,” Castellano said.
 Castellano and Irad Ortiz are the only regular riders who are winning at better than 20 percent.
 Jose Ortiz, the two-time defending champ, has 19 and is still waiting for that one big day to catapult him up the standings, but in the meantime he leads in percentage in the money, at 57 percent.
 Santana has benefitted from being a regular jockey for trainer Steve Asmussen.
 Of Santana’s 13 winners, four have been with maiden 2-year-olds from Asmussen’s barn.
 “Steve Asmussen has had young horses ready to run,” Santana said. “He has done a good job in schooling them at the gate. They know what to do.”
 “He’s been up here for a few years now, and with that experience, he’s taken it to the next level,” Asmussen said after the Jim Dandy.
 Castellano came to this meet hoping to score in the big races and not pursue quantity over quality.
 He won the Grade III Sanford aboard Sombeyay on opening weekend and the Grade I A.G. Vanderbilt on the monster sprinter Imperial Hint.
 He’s optimistic that Catholic Boy will make a strong accounting of himself in the Travers on Aug. 25. Castellano rode Catholic Boy in his last two races, victories on the turf in the Belmont Derby and Pennine Ridge.
 “If you have to choose, of course, I want both [quantity and quality],” he said. “But if you have to pick, I want to win the Grade I’s. I want to win the Travers, I want to win the Alabama, the Whitney, the Woodward. This year, I’m trying to do something different and win the important races, but now I ended up with more quantity of races. Hey, that’s fine with me, too. I’ll take it.”
 To illustrate the urgency to win at Saratoga, Castellano asked the boxed-in No Need to Appeal to bull her way past Pacific Gale in mid-stretch during the third race.
 It was the only way his horse could get free to sustain a closing run on the dueling front-runners, and once in the clear, Castellano furiously rode No Need to Appeal to the wire, where she caught Breaking Bread by a short nose.
 That result survived a stewards review of No Need to Appeal’s muscling tactics.
 “Everybody brings the best of the best, and that’s why it’s so important to me,” Castellano said. “We all point toward this meet. I don’t think about it [standings] much because I’ve been riding for so long. If it happens, that’s great; if it doesn’t happen, I can still be satisfied.
 “You try to focus on every single ride and have the best result. The standings, you can’t control that. If you have a good meet at Saratoga, you hit a home run, because it’s not easy to win at Saratoga.”
ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Javier Castellano, atop No Need to Appeal, wins the third race Wednesday at Saratoga Race Course.