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."