Jesus Castanon didn't hold back his emotions after winning his first… (Patrick Smith / Getty Images )
Reporting from Baltimore
Jesus Castanon is 38 years old. He has been a jockey since he was 16, and in all that time he had never won a Grade I race.
That changed Saturday in a magnificent way when Castanon and Shackleford, a 12-1 shot, held off fast-closing favorite Animal Kingdom to win the 136th Preakness at Pimlico Race Course.
"When I got to the top of the stretch, I knew I still had a lot of horse," Castanon said. "When I asked him to pick it up, I felt him get bigger. It was very emotional. I never in my life thought I would win the Preakness. It never crossed my mind until Shackleford came into my life. Today, I knew he was going to do it."
Castanon rode his horse around the first turn to cool him and gather himself, and when he came back to the front stretch to be guided into the winner's circle, Castanon gave the crowd and his family every sign he could think of to show his joy.
He raised his arms in victory. He hugged his horse's neck and later said, "I told him, 'Congratulations.' " He tipped his whip to the infield, smiled and patted his heart, and, just before he was given the blanket of black-eyed Susans to drape over his horse's neck, he stopped some friends and gave them a joyful thumbs-up.
"I like this horse," he said, smiling like a matinee idol, his brown eyes dancing. "He's a very kind horse. He does what you ask. I know he gets a little excited before the race — you saw that today — but he's really laid-back. He's calm when it's time to go to work."
They are a well-matched pair — Castanon, who, winning trainer Dale Romans said, is as calm before Triple Crown races "as he is before a claiming race on a Wednesday," and Shackleford, who bobbled at the break but settled quickly into the pace — and they've both come a long way.
Castanon was 11 when his dad took him and his brothers to the racetrack in Mexico City.
"At that point, I was a little afraid of horses," he said. "But once I got on the pony with my dad and brother, I liked it."
By 16, he was racing a little and dreaming a little about coming to the United States — "Not to work, but just to see. But then with the horses came the opportunity to come and work. My brother Antonio was riding in California, and he's the one that brought me and our family here," Castanon said.
He met his wife, jockey Rolanda Simpson, in Kentucky, built a career riding there and in Florida and has ridden many of Romans' horses. A year ago, he had a ride on Paddy O'Prado with Romans but lost it before the Kentucky Derby, in which the horse finished third. This year, Castanon picked up the ride on Shackleford in February, finished first with him in an allowance race, then ran a disappointing fifth in the Fountain of Youth. But Romans stuck with him, and they finished a strong fourth at the Derby.
"Jesus is a very good rider, and on top of it, he's a good horseman," said Romans, who also won his first Triple Crown race. "When he comes back from a race, he'll give you feedback — just like he told me after the Fountain of Youth to throw the race out, not to worry about it and move forward. … I took him off Paddy O'Prado, but I wasn't going to make that mistake again. He doesn't get shaken…. He knew he had ridden with all these jockeys before and he could do it again."
But getting the best of all those riders was more than Castanon could fathom.
"Amazing," he said. "I've got no words."