For Belmont Jockeys, the Return of a Gig

The broken bones, separated shoulders and concussions are the cost of doing business for jockeys. They climb atop 1,100-pound horses, after all, push them to speeds of 35 miles per hour, and maneuver them inches apart in a crowded field of as many as 13 other colleagues atop their own hurtling thoroughbreds. Javier Castellano has experienced the toll of those injuries and is prepared for those risks.

What Castellano, a Hall of Fame rider, was not ready for was a call from the health department in Broward County, Fla., in late March, telling him that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. He had just run three miles in the sweltering South Florida heat, getting ready for a weekend of lucrative stake races.

“Do you have the right Castellano?” he asked the voice on the other end of the phone. He had just returned from New York, he explained, where he had sheltered in his Long Island home with his family, not even going to the grocery store.

They did.

“What do I do?” he asked.

He was told to stay home for 14 days, but that presented another dilemma. When Castellano, 42, rides the winter meet in South Florida at Gulfstream Park, he stays with his 64-year-old mother, Neila Castellano. When he told her that he was checking into a hotel, she was having none of it.

“You don’t go anywhere. I’ll take care of you,” she said. “God will take care of us. We will take care of each other.”

On Saturday, Castellano will ride Farmington Road in the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes. Do not mistake that for a return to normal for Castellano or for thoroughbred racing.

Over the past three months, Castellano has twice quarantined away from his wife and three children, sitting idly while missing scant opportunities to ride. Jockeys are the ultimate gig workers of the athletic world. They are self-employed and must finish first, second or third in a race to collect a meaningful paycheck. Until this month, horse racing was largely shut down across much of the United States.

This week, the Belmont Stakes will hardly be the Test of the Champion that horse racing aficionados have come to know and love.

Instead of being the final leg of the Triple Crown, it will kick off the series for the first time because of the postponements of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Instead of 150,000 people filling the grandstands on Long Island, there will be no spectators and only a bare-bones staff of grooms, trainers and assistant starters who will wear masks and practice social distancing. Instead of its grueling mile-and-a-half distance, the race has been shortened to a mile and an eighth.

Still, Castellano’s convalescence could have been worse. He had a sore throat and mild headache along with more than a few panic attacks. He got them early in the public health crisis, when accurate information was low and anxiety was higher.

“No one really could tell me what to expect. It was mentally hard,” Castellano said. “You wonder if you are going to wake up tomorrow unable to breathe, or if you are going to see your kids again.”

One morning, his mother woke up with a cough and a headache.

“I was scared — what did I do to my mother?” he said. Fortunately, it was a false alarm and Neila recovered quickly.

Two weeks later, after testing negative for the virus, Castellano returned to New York, where the racetracks had already been shut down. He spent 10 days at home helping his wife, Abby, with the distance learning of their daughters Kayla, 14, and Sienna, 11, and to keep their 7-year-old son, Brady, calm.

In the meantime, Castellano’s agent, John Panagot, scrambled to find his rider some work. About the only place running where they had clients was Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. But, because New York was in its most deadly days of the pandemic, the track required riders from the state to quarantine for two weeks somewhere else before being allowed to ride. So Castellano returned to Florida and went to his mother’s house.

“He was isolated from his family and, like a lot of people, needed to work,” Panagot said. “He can’t work from home.”

Not only does Castellano need a horse to ride, he must win to collect 10 percent of the first-place check; or finish second or third to collect 5 percent of those purses. There is no collective bargaining agreement. There are no guaranteed salaries — exorbitant or otherwise.

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If Castellano finishes fourth or worse during races at Belmont, he picks up a $125 mount fee. Panagot gets 25 percent of that and Castellano’s valet, who takes care of his equipment, gets 5 percent. By the time Castellano pays them and various other fees, half of his mount fee is gone.

“If I finish fourth by a hair, I’ve risked my life for $60,” Castellano said.

Still, he knows how fortunate he is to be back at work during the pandemic. For 23 years now, he has been diligent enough in the early mornings at the racetrack working out horses that he wants to ride in the afternoon. He twice won the Preakness Stakes and is a member of the horse racing Hall of Fame.

Castellano is talented enough that of the nearly 29,000 mounts he has had, 5,259 of them have ended up in the winner’s circle. Altogether, the horses that Castellano has ridden have won more than $345 million in purses. When Belmont Park opened last month for training, Castellano grasped for what he felt was normalcy — even if it came with face masks and gloves.

“When you touch the ground at the track, you forget about everything,” he said. “It’s so competitive and you are doing something you love.”

Then, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, touching off weeks of protests in a country already reeling from the pandemic and rocketing joblessness. The world outside the racetrack became even more complicated.

The jockeys’ room in New York, like the city itself, is a melting pot. Castellano is Venezuelan, Jose and Irad Ortiz are from Puerto Rico, Luis Saez is from Panama and Kendrick Carmouche is African-American.

On the opening day of Belmont’s meet, every rider in the colony came to the paddock before the first race and stood for a moment of silence to honor those who died of Covid-19, and as a nod to medical professionals. Then, Castellano and his colleagues took a knee in solidarity with protesters calling for changes to policing.

What had he learned from a harrowing three months?

“We got to pray for each other,” Castellano said. “We got to love each other more.”

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