DEL MAR — The seven-week Del Mar racing season has come and gone, and Antonio Castanon, who won more races here than any other jockey in the first three days of the meeting, has yet to return to the saddle.
Castanon's agent, Marvin Freters, says that Castanon has lost about $40,000 in riding fees since the Mexican jockey was arrested by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials Aug. 3. Castanon was released two days later, but he has been prohibited from riding by the INS, which says he doesn't have a work permit.
Ronald Bonaparte, Castanon's attorney, says that shortsightedness by the federal government and a bureaucratic boondoggle are responsible for the delay in the jockey's return.
According to Bonaparte, when Castanon applied for a work permit several weeks ago, the petition was denied because the government said that he wasn't sufficiently known as a jockey.
That prompted the rhetorical question from Bonaparte: "If Antonio isn't eligible to work here, then what foreign-born professional athlete would be?"
Bonaparte said that the ruling on the original petition has been appealed and a second petition has also been filed.
"The first petition was handled by a San Diego attorney," Bonaparte said. "I looked at it and it was a good petition. It should have been allowed.
"Since then, five or six jockeys (including Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay) have written letters saying that as far as they're concerned, Antonio is their equal."
For the first three days of the Del Mar season, Castanon was more than that. He won one race on opening day, added two victories the next day and won the first three races on the card on the third day. The six wins came for five different trainers, an indication that Castanon's popularity among horsemen would be broad-based.
Castanon, who will be 24 next week, first started riding in California in the fall of 1985. He was heralded as the best jockey to come out of Mexico since the late Alvaro Pineda more than 25 years ago. This summer at Hollywood Park, Castanon won 20 races, which tied him for 11th in the standings.
"I don't know why," Bonaparte said, "but Antonio's file was moved from the San Diego INS office to the Los Angeles office . . . and now we've been told that the file has been lost. They're trying to find it someplace in the bowels of the Los Angeles INS building."
Mike Connell, a patrol agent in charge of the INS station in El Cajon, said that his office no longer has jurisdiction over the case.
"Our only interest now would be making sure that Castanon isn't riding, because he's still prohibited," Connell said.
Connell referred a reporter to James Turnage, a district spokesman for the INS, but he couldn't be reached for comment.
Castanon first had a permit to be an exercise rider, at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. His permit was never upgraded to jockey status and then in May, according to Connell, Castanon's original permit expired and there was no application for a renewal.
Two days after he rode three winners at Del Mar, Castanon was arrested and later released on $2,000 bond.
"I think we were set up," Marvin Freters said.
One of Castanon's advisers says that he feels the jockey has been caught in the ripple effect of the full-scale raids that the INS conducted on Del Mar's backstretch in 1985. More than 125 undocumented workers were arrested.
"I think we could get Antonio back riding in a couple of days if we could find that file in Los Angeles," Bonaparte said. "If this man can't get a permit to work, then no one can. It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen."
Freters thought there might be a bright finish to a dismal Del Mar season when he bought a ticket Sunday on the Pick Six and had five winners. But one ticket was sold with all six winners, for a payoff of more than $625,000.
Freters' consolation payoff was $1,561.60.