Jesus Castanon had a good feeling about 3-year-old filly Tapa Tapa Tapa before Saturday’s 37th renewal of the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes. She had breezed five furlongs eight days earlier in 1:01 2/5, and Castanon knew she would be tough to beat if she could carry that energy into Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South.
“That day I worked her in company, and breaking from the (5/8-mile) pole, she was ready. She pulled me right away,” Castanon said. “We (Castanon and trainer Timothy Hamm) knew the way she was working, she was going to show speed, and we figured we would be laying second or third early.”
Tapa Tapa Tapa broke even sharper in the Suncoast than expected, opening a three-length lead at the half-mile pole. Castanon gave her a breather, and by the time the pair hit the 3/8-mile pole, he knew his challengers would have to close like world-beaters to deny him the victory.
The 3-10 favorite, Elate, was going well at the end, but Tapa Tapa Tapa had enough in reserve to win by three lengths in 1:39.91 for the mile-and-40-yard distance, only .55 seconds off the stakes record.
“She was showing a lot of ability each time I worked her, getting better and better,” Castanon said. “I think the blinkers made her more aggressive, and I think she is going to improve off of that race. She was doing it so easy, I think any filly that goes with her early will really have to push to keep up with her.”
Castanon’s victory on Tapa Tapa Tapa provided an exclamation point to a recent streak that has earned him the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month Award. The 43-year-old Mexico City native, who won back-to-back riding titles at Tampa Bay Downs in 2003-2004 and 2004-2005, has climbed to sixth in the standings with 27 victories.
Castanon, who is represented here by veteran agent Steve Elzey, returned to Oldsmar this winter to ride quality horses, and he’s been afforded that opportunity by such trainers as Hamm, Tom Proctor, Todd Pletcher and Malcolm Pierce, among others. It has been a gratifying season for Castanon, whose business slowed in 2015 when he was sidelined for a period of about five months by a pair of frightening spills.
The first came at Churchill Downs, when Castanon incurred a broken left fibula and broken tailbone, putting him on the shelf for about 10 weeks. Four days after his return, he again broke his tailbone and suffered a concussion in an accident at Ellis Park, sidelining him until late in the year and turning much of 2016 into a “rebuilding” situation.
“The second time made me think,” said Castanon, who is approaching 2,400 career victories. “My wife (retired jockey Rolanda Simpson) has always been very supportive, and she was basically with me the whole time while I was recuperating. She gave me a lot of encouragement and told me that whatever I wanted to do, she was going to be there for me.”
Castanon also weighed the risks with his desire to provide for their sons Drew, 13, and Isaiah, 9 (he has two grown children, Graciela and Micah, from his previous marriage). “I looked at my children and thought, do I really want to keep doing it?” he recalls. “But riding horses is what I know. This is the main thing I have in life and I love doing it, so I knew I was doing the right thing.”
Castanon is best known, of course, for winning the 2011 Preakness on the Dale Romans-trained Shackleford, about six months after his father, Jesus Castanon, Sr., had succumbed to kidney disease. A former trainer, it was the elder Castanon who gave Jesus and his brothers, retired jockeys Antonio and Jose, the green light to ride races.
“That whole experience is something I never want to forget,” said Castanon, who also rode Shackleford to victories in the Grade II Churchill Downs Stakes and the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill as a 4-year-old.
“When I got back to Churchill the day after the Preakness, I was so excited to see my buddies and it was very emotional to see my family’s reaction,” he said. “You get back from something like that and you know you’re the same guy you were before, but it took a while to get over that, in every way.”
As thanks for his contributions, Shackleford’s breeders and owners, Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge, gifted Castanon with a pair of breeding seasons. He has a 2-year-old filly and a yearling filly by Shackleford, both from his broodmare Miss Dora (by Albert the Great), at the family farm in Shepherdsville, Ky., to be trained by his brother Jose.
“I’m excited to see what those two little babies are going to do, but I don’t get too high on young horses until they are showing something in the morning and you can see where you can go with them,” Castanon said.
A horse such as Shackleford is, for even the most talented and fortunate of riders, almost always a once-in-a-lifetime runner. But Castanon is pumped up to continue the quest while competing this season against a crop of talented young jockeys, as well as such Oldsmar mainstays as Daniel Centeno and Ronnie Allen, Jr.
“That’s what makes it so interesting,” he said. “You’re going to have good jockeys going after good horses, and when you have a chance to ride one like that, you have to be at your best. Because there is always another good jockey next to you, waiting.”