It has been 1,138 days since Javier Castellano got thrown for a loop. That was March 24, 2020, the day he tested positive for COVID.
Think about that date for a moment. March 24, 2020. Remember, it was early in the pandemic. Only 12 days earlier, basketball player Rudy Gobert tested positive for what we uneasily called the novel coronavirus, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued the order that virtually shut down sports around the world.
As our current president said about something else when he was vice president, this was a big effin’ deal. It really was for Castellano, who at the time called it “the biggest challenge of my life.”
We did not yet know how often COVID was lethal. Castellano did not know whether he would recover let alone do what he did for the first time in his career 1,138 days later.
This was a better, big effin’ deal. Even bigger than Castellano's four consecutive Eclipse Awards between 2013 and 2016. Bigger than his two Preakness wins and his 10 in the Breeders’ Cup.
“I had a lot of confidence in myself that this year would be the year,” he said.
Castellano’s ride was as patient as his journey during the last three years. Even after Mage missed the break to start the race Saturday, he said the strategy that he and Delgado developed allowed him to avoid any panic.
“Believe it or not, not at all,” he said. “I had a lot of confidence in the horse, and I took my time. We had a plan. We talked together, and we described the race and what happens if we missed the break. One thing with Gustavo is he gives me a lot of confidence. ... He’d say, ‘Take your time. Enjoy the ride.’ ”
Even though he had not finished better than third in any previous Derby, Castellano’s experience told him that the hot early pace eventually would work in his favor.
“When we were turning for home, all the horses started backing up a little bit,” he said. “You have to be aware. Don’t get in trouble. That’s what I thought, I was afraid, turning for home, don’t get stuck between horses. Give him a clear path, because I knew when I was going to ask him, I’m going to have a lot of horse under me, and this horse is going to give me the best run ever.”
It was the best result ever for Castellano, whose Hall of Fame career hit a lull after COVID. A nadir, really. He had won at least 197 races each year from 2010 to 2019. He has not won more than 163 in any season since. Never mind trying to break the Derby drought. His streak of 12 consecutive years with rides in America’s biggest race ended last year.
Contrast last year when he spent Derby day riding at Belmont Park to his being the man of the hour Saturday night at a news conference with the rest of Mage’s victorious connections.
“It’s up and down in this game,” Castellano said. “You never know what’s going to happen. I thank God. I’m grateful for a lot of opportunities that it gave me.”
With his wife Abby and their three children with him, Castellano thought back to those two weeks he spent quarantined at his mother’s house in Florida, waiting to learn whether he would recover from the new and feared disease let alone ride again. His family, he said, kept him hoping for the best.
“I went through everything with COVID,” he said. “They gave me a lot of inspiration to go through the tough times.”
In an eight-day period when Churchill Downs lost six horses on the racetrack and one more in a paddock accident, and when a trainer and his horses got thrown out of their stable, and when two horses got loose in training, and when the reigning division champion who was a certain favorite to win the Derby was scratched, Castellano’s story was a positive inspiration.
Oh, yes. Viva, Venezuela. Castellano and Delgado were born there, and this victory was the biggest for that country’s racing industry since Cañonero II won the Derby in 1971. That was 18,998 days ago.
“Please celebrate bringing that (victory) to my country, Venezuela,” Castellano said. “It’s really important for us. Our country.”
And really important for this country, too.