Racing in Their Bones: Top Jockeys Follow Fathers, Brothers to the Track

Jockeys preparing for the Preakness recall riding in their families

Kentucky Derby Horse Racing
AP

Javier Castellano would never have been a jockey if his father had had his way.

Abel Castellano had ridden horses for almost 30 years in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and broken ribs and a shoulder along the way. He knew how tough the job was.

But his son Javier would awaken as a child and get out of bed when his father returned from the track. Javier fell in love with racing, and once he finished high school, he followed his father to the track.

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"I always looked up to him, because he was a great jockey," said Javier, 37, the top thoroughbred jockey in wins and earnings heading into the Preakness Stakes this weekend.

“It’s very risky, but it’s a beautiful sport,” he said.

On Saturday in Baltimore, he will ride Divining Rod in the second leg of the Triple Crown. The race will take all his concentration, he said, and it's easier when his family understands the pressures he faces.

Many riders in this year's Triple Crown come from long lineages of jockeys, trainers and agents — mostly men, though occasionally women. In families with deep roots in racing, the jockeys grow up around stables, learn from their fathers and uncles and root for their siblings in their races.

Trevor McCarthy, 20, knew by the first grade that he wanted to be jockey like his father, Michael.

As a boy, Trevor would go with his father to the Delaware Park Racetrack in Wilmington, first riding the ponies that led the horses to the post, then the horses themselves. He credits his father with much of his success.

"He’s put a lot of effort into making me the rider I am," McCarthy said.

McCarthy — who will be on Bodhisattva on Saturday, his 21st birthday — said he always looked up to his father, a jockey turned trainer and jockey's agent who also gallops horses in the mornings.

“He loves it, he loves that I ride," he said. "Sometimes he gets a bit nervous watching, a bit nervous and concerned at times, but overall he loves it."

His mother, who competed in barrel races in high school in upstate New York, is just as proud, he said.

Competing against McCarthy, the Preakness' youngest rider, will be Gary Stevens, a racing veteran who at 52 will be the oldest jockey at Pimlico on Saturday and who like his young rival was raised among horses, their trainers and jockeys.

Stevens twice returned to racing after he had retired, and has acted in the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit” and worked as a racing analyst for NBC Sports and other outlets during his time away from the track. Two weeks ago, Stevens rode Firing Line in the Kentucky Derby, finishing second to American Pharoah. He has previously won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont stakes three times each.

Stevens was raised around horses in Boise, Idaho, the youngest of three boys. His brother Scott is also a jockey, and his brother Craig is a jockey agent and horse trainer. Their father is a horse trainer; their mother was a rodeo queen.

"She could ride, and she’s pretty,” he said.

Only Stevens' wife, Angie, does not ride.

All of the Stevens brothers played sports — football, baseball and wrestling — and they hunted and fished.

“We all wanted to play pro football, except for my middle brother Scott," Stevens said. "He always just wanted to be a jockey.”

He called all of his brothers in the days before the Preakness, and though they did talk about horses, no one brought up Saturday’s race.

"It’s kind of my peaceful time,” Stevens said. “It was more little brother calling his two big brothers, and just getting some free time off of not worrying about the Preakness. Sort of going back to my childhood with my brothers."

The bond of brotherhood also looms large for Victor Espinoza, who rode American Pharoah to victory at the Kentucky Derby and hopes to do the same Saturday. His older brother was also a jockey.

Espinoza, now 42, grew up on a farm in Hidalgo, Mexico, playing soccer, baseball, basketball — every sport but golf. He rode horses, but he was afraid of them.

“I had no clue about racing,” he said. “My family, they never were interested in the races. We are farmers.”

But Espinoza followed his older brother Jose to Cancun, where the two brothers learned to train horses, and eventually moved to California to ride them.

Victor never chose to become a jockey, he said. He rode horses to survive, for what he thought would be a short time.

“For me, it's not just a fun thing,” he said. “It's a job that I have to do.”

It's also a job that has profoundly affected his brother, who suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was thrown from a horse crossing the finish line in Saratoga in 2013. Jose no longer rides, and his brother says his condition is improving.

Though Jose was in Baltimore last year to watch his brother ride California Chrome in the Preakness, he will not travel this year. But he will watch the race, Victor Espinoza said.

"I try not to bring it up at all," Victor said of his brother’s injury. "For me, I just want him to be 100 percent."

Castellano, who will ride Divining Rod on Saturday, is reminded daily of the risks, too. His wife Abby, the daughter of the national director of the Jockeys' Guild, grasps the sacrifices he must make, he said.

Castellano loves his sport but appreciates how dangerous it can be. He must watch his weight. He has little time off. He travels in the winter from his home in New York to race in Florida. The first year, his wife moved with him, and they enrolled the children in school in Florida for three months, but the disruption wasn't good for them, he said. So now they stay in New York, and he is separated from them.

"It's a funny business," he said. “You can be in the top right now, and then if I spill, you can die or you can be paralyzed.”

His daughters cared more about the hats at the Kentucky Derby than about riding, he said, but there is also his 2-year-old son.

Would he like his son to follow him to the racetrack?

"I don't want to talk about that," he said, laughing, though he admitted he would support his son if he wanted to be a jockey. How could he not? he asked.

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