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Javier Castellano still eyeing elusive Kentucky Derby

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Javier Castellano is arguably the best jockey in racing right now.

Except, that is, at the Kentucky Derby.

It is a baffling fact: The top rider in the game – he’s won the Eclipse Award as the sport’s best in each of the last four years – has the worst record of any jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. And even with all his accomplishments, when the Run for the Roses draws near the most glaring omission from his resume starts gnawing at him.

This is the one he wants, more than anything else.

“To win this race, it would mean a lot,” Castellano said. He paused for a moment, looked up and quietly continued his thought: “A lot,” he said again.

Castellano has ridden in the Kentucky Derby 10 times. He’s 0 for 10 in those starts. Not just 0 for 10, mind you, but he’s never finished second, never even finished third. Only Rafael Bejarano has such a record with at least 10 Derby appearances, and every jockey with 11 or more Derby mounts has crossed the line first, second or third at least once.

So history says 2017 has to be Castellano’s time. He’ll be aboard Gunnevera in this year’s Derby on May 6.

“He told me that he wanted to ride this horse,” said Gunnevera trainer Antonio Sano, who like Castellano is a native of Venezuela. “He called me and said that. That meant very much.”

Sano believes the breakthrough is coming.

“I think he’s the best,” Sano said.

The numbers certainly suggest that Sano might be right.

Besides the four straight Eclipse Awards – something only Jerry Bailey has done among jockeys – Castellano is a finalist this year for enshrinement in racing’s Hall of Fame, with the announcement of the new induction class coming on Monday. His mounts have collected over $275 million in earnings, a total only four other jockeys have reached. He’s won nearly 5,000 races, seven of them at the Breeders’ Cup.

It’s not like he can’t win the big one.

He just hasn’t won this big one – yet.

“This is my target,” Castellano said. “It would be more than a dream come true. It’s the one thing as a jockey that you want, to get to that level. This is the one.”

Castellano was aboard the favored Bellamy Road in 2005, but finished seventh. Of his other nine starters, only two have gone off at odds less than 10-1. The closest he came to the win was 2013, when Normandy Invasion had the lead in the stretch – on a soaking wet track – before finishing fourth.

It’s not just the Triple Crown races that haven’t brought Castellano great luck. Besides his Derby troubles, he’s 0 for 10 in the Belmont and 1 for 5 in the Preakness. Add them up and Castellano is 1 for 25 in those classics, with no wins in his last 21 starts.

None of that is holding him back, and trainers still clamor for his services. He’s No. 3 in earnings so far this year, despite paring his schedule down just a bit, and still hits the board – racing parlance for finishing in the top three – in more than half of his starts.

“I’ve had so much success with Javier, and we have great chemistry together,” reigning Eclipse Award trainer winner Chad Brown said. “He studies the races very well. And if he’s ridden a horse before, he learns a lot from it and applies it to the next race.”

That’s why Gunnevera might be a lively pick on Derby day.

Castellano has been aboard him four times, with two wins, a second-place finish and most recently a third-place showing in the Florida Derby when Gunnevera made a huge run from the back of the field. And every time, Castellano has come away a little more convinced that he’s going to Churchill Downs with a real shot.

“Absolutely, this is what I’ve been looking for,” Castellano said. “Maybe things will go well. Maybe this is the year.”

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.