Sweet 16th: How Mage jockey Javier Castellano conjured drought-ending Kentucky Derby win

Brooks Holton
Louisville Courier Journal

With one hand holding a Venezuelan flag, Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano planted a kiss upon the Kentucky Derby trophy. Over his shoulder, one of Mage's connections shouted, "Sweet 16!"

Eighteen years after finishing seventh in his Run for the Roses debut with Bellamy Road, Castellano rode Mage to victory in Derby 149 on Saturday at Churchill Downs, ending one of the longest droughts for a rider in race history. The 45-year-old from Maracaibo, Venezuela, who ranks second among North American jockeys in career earnings, was one of just four to make 15 or more Derby mounts without a trip to the Winner’s Circle.

That streak fittingly came to an end with a colt who is trained by a man from Castellano's hometown, Gustavo Delgado, who also picked up his first Derby win in three tries. To make the victory even sweeter for the jockey, he and Mage left Post 8 with 15-1 odds.

Mage wins:How he pulled ahead to win the 2023 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs

Watch it again:Relive Mage's win in the 149th Run for the Roses

Mage jockey Javier Castellano celebrated with his team in the winners circle after he won Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. on May 6, 2023.

"It’s unbelievable," Castellano said.

Before he and Mage covered 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.57, besting second-place finisher Two Phil's by a length, Castellano sat in Churchill's jockey room watching NBC's broadcast of the Derby. His name appeared on the television, and attached to it was, "0 for 15."

Winning jockey Javier Castellano, center, clinches his fist in celebration aboard Mage as jockey Jareth Loveberry looks on from second-place Two Phil's, right, after the 149th Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. At left is third-place Angel of Empire ridden by Falvien Prat. May, 6, 2023.

"It gave me so much inspiration," Castellano said. "I (thought), 'This is the year. I'm gonna win the race.'"

To do so, he and the son of Good Magic had to conjure a rally from the back of the pack, going six wide off the final turn to surge past Two Phil's and jockey Jareth Loveberry down the stretch. Before Saturday's race, Castellano's lone finish on the board in the Run for the Roses came in 2018 aboard Florida Derby winner Audible.

He took his time when he missed the break out of the gate. He didn't panic when, on the backstretch, he felt pressure from Tapit Trice. And in the end, he picked up his 131st Grade 1 win and third Triple Crown victory.

"It's like when an artist is telling you exactly what (they're) doing with a painting," said Gustavo Delgado Jr., the trainer’s son and assistant. "What a masterpiece."

After winning the 149th Kentucky Derby, jockey Javier Castellano celebrates aboard Mage as they are lead to the Winner's Circle by outrider Greg Blasi Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. May, 6, 2023.

More on Mage's win:Mage, trainer Gustavo Delgado provide reason to celebrate during unexpected Kentucky Derby

Payouts and odds:How much did you win thanks to Mage's victory?

This masterpiece almost didn't happen, because Castellano was expected to ride trainer Ben Colebrook’s Raise Cain before teaming up with his fellow countryman just 11 days before the race, when Luis Saez opted to ride Tapit Trice for Todd Pletcher and left Delgado without a jockey for Mage.

Delgado Jr. told Daily Racing Form in late April it came down to Castellano and Mike Smith because the team wanted an experienced rider to counteract Mage's inexperience in the 3-year-old's fourth career start. With Castellano sharing their hometown and having jockeyed the chestnut colt to a fourth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park — 7 1/2 lengths behind scratched Derby favorite Forte — he was given the nod.

"He is also almost like family," Delgado Jr. told Daily Racing Form. "His father (Abel Castellano Sr.) rode for my father, and we all come from the same town in Venezuela. We are all very close friends.”

Now, they are more than that. They are Derby champions. Finally.

Reach Louisville men's basketball reporter Brooks Holton at and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.