Castellano makes triumphant return to Gulfstream in defense of riding title
$1Million Claiming Crown highlights Saturday’s 10-race card
Russian jockey wins first race in United States

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Leading the nation in wins and purse money earned, jockey Javier Castellano didn’t waste any time beginning defense of his Gulfstream Park riding title.
The two-time defending champion made his debut at the winter Champions meet on Friday and promptly piloted 4-5 favorite Logan Street ($3.60) to a 1 ¼-length victory in the second race, his first mount of the afternoon.

Castellano made it 2-for-2 in the sixth race with On Golden Road ($7) for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who led the owner’s standings here last winter.

“This is the best place to be in the winter. It’s good to win some races,” Castellano said. “For me, it’s opening day. It’s my first day here at Gulfstream for the meet, and to win my first race the first mount I rode, it’s great. I’m very thankful. All the people put me on nice horses to ride and build confidence in myself.”

Already enjoying a career year, Castellano, 36, can become part of Gulfstream Park history with another title. He has dominated the standings in each of the past two years, winning 112 races in 2011-12 and 100 in 2012-13.

Jorge Chavez is the only rider to win three consecutive Gulfstream titles outright, from 1998-2000. Jeff Fell shared the 1977 crown with Mickey Solomone, then won on his own in 1978 and 1979.

Six other jockeys have had two straight outright titles, most recently Paco Lopez in 2009-10 and 2010-11, before being dethroned by Castellano.

Castellano is named in eight of 10 races on Saturday – including six of eight Claiming Crown races – and six of 10 on Sunday.

“I am having a wonderful year,” Castellano said. “I’m looking forward to try to be top jockey. The competition is tough, no question about it. There’ s a lot of great riders here from different places. It keeps you motivated to do what you do.”

The native Venezuelan comes to Gulfstream leading North America in wins (338), purses ($25,348,113) and stakes victories (59). His 23 graded stakes ranks fourth.

Three of Castellano’s four Grade 1 wins in 2013 came with the filly Princess of Sylmar, in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama at Saratoga, and the Beldame at Belmont Park. He also upset the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Ria Antonia on Nov. 2.

His success has Castellano in position to claim the Eclipse Award as leading jockey, which would be his first. Last year represented his previous career highs with 337 wins and more than $25.3 million in purses.

“It’s really special, because you’re always working for that. To get to that level is not easy,” he said. “Your work for many, many years to get to the point to win some races, and money-wise to be leading jockey, it’s not easy. I am very appreciative. A lot of trainers give me the opportunity to ride their horses, and I have to give a lot of credit to my agent (Matt Muzikar). We’ve been very successful.”

Castellano took last winter’s meet title at Gulfstream by 36 wins over Hall of Famer John Velazquez, including victories in the Suwanee River (G3), Canadian Turf Stakes (G3), Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) and Pan American (G2).

“I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “You have to work hard, every day of the week.”

Heading into Gulfstream, Castellano has won three straight riding titles in New York, capturing Belmont Park’s spring-summer and fall meets, as well as his first time taking the coveted Saratoga Race Course crown.

His 33 wins are more than runner-up Irad Ortiz, Jr. at Aqueduct’s fall meet, which ends Dec. 31.

“It’s not easy to win a lot of races anywhere,” Castellano said. “I’ve been very lucky. I’m very thankful and I appreciate all the trainers and the owners giving me the opportunity to ride a lot of horses, and a lot of nice horses. They help me to build my foundation and my confidence.”

Arriving at Gulfstream brings back fond memories for Castellano, who left his native country in June 1997 and landed in south Florida, winning two riding titles at Tropical-at-Calder and another at Hialeah before moving his tack to New York in 2001.

“When I first started riding in the United States, my first stop was Florida. That’s where I come from,” he said. “I’m very familiar with the track, and we have had a lot of success together.”

Of his 23 graded stakes wins this year, 13 have come for North America’s leading trainer Todd Pletcher, and he has won four for rising star Chad Brown. Both trainers figure to have a measured impact on Gulfstream’s races this winter.

“I’ve been very fortunate to ride for Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown. They give me a lot of business,” Castellano said. “All my career they have supported me, especially the last few years. I’m really thankful and I appreciate all those opportunities.”

First win: Russian jockey Dzhubei Avidzba won his first race in America aboard the Ed Coletti-trained Daddy’s Kid ($11.40) in Friday’s finale. It was the second North American mount for Avidzba, 29, who captured three Russian Derbys in his native country.

“I’m really happy to win my first race in the United States against some of the best riders in the world,” he said through an interpreter.

Who’s Hot: The meet-leading jockey/trainer combination of Paco Lopez and Eddie Plesa struck again with even-money favorite Grand Jetsetter ($4) in the seventh race. Lopez has been aboard for all five of Plesa’s victories, and raised his total to nine wins through three days with Wire Funds ($10) in the ninth.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey, leading owners at Gulfstream’s 2012-13 meet, and trainer Mike Maker teamed up to win their first two races of the winter with One Golden Road ($7) in the sixth and Lay It Down ($9.60)the eighth, their only starters on the day.

Rainbow 6 Carryover: $50,000
Super Hi 5 Carryover: $4,594.84
Ultimate 8: $100,000