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SHEPHERDSVILLE - Professional jockey Jesus Castanon recently rode in his first Kentucky Derby, with a fourth-place finish aboard the colt Shackleford. Later that night Castanon and his family headed to their ol' Kentucky home, not so far away, in Bullitt County.
Jesus and his wife, Rolanda, have lived in Shepherdsville for most of their decade-long marriage. They have two children, Drew (8) and Isaiah (3).
A regular rider during both spring and fall meets at Churchill Downs, the Castanon Family wanted to live outside of the city so they could own horses. Jesus said Shepherdsville allowed that pursuit while remaining close to work.
"This is a great place to keep horses," he added. The family currently owns five thoroughbreds and a pony.
"We enjoy being able to ride four-wheelers and horses on our farm," Rolanda added.
Another reason for the couple's Bullitt County home decision was having family living in the area. The couple co-owns Kiddie Corral Day Care with Rolanda's mother, owner-operator Suzie Simpson.
Since moving to Shepherdsville, Jesus now has two brothers living in the area. Alex and Jose Luis, both exercise riders at Churchill, live in Hillview.
Having family nearby is important to the Castanons, especially when Jesus is out of town for extended periods. Rolanda's parents live close by, offering assistance when needed.
"We moved to Bullitt County from Okolona when I was about five," Rolanda said. "My family's here and they can always help me, they're right around the corner."
Rolanda said the children have participated in sports programs through the Bullitt County YMCA. Jesus said the family makes an occasional trip to Kart Kountry, Jesus spends a lot of spare time on the local golf courses.
"We're just normal, average everyday people," said Rolanda. "But I guess normal is good."
Living the dream
Born the son of a horse trainer in Mexico City, Jesus, 38, didn't dream of winning Kentucky Derby roses the way others did in his profession.
"I never thought about the Derby until I came to Kentucky," he said. "When I first raced at Churchill, it was a thrill just to see the paddock."
Jesus is one of 10 siblings. Two other brothers, Jose and Antonio, are former jockeys.
A good amount of Jesus' rides over the years were at Kentucky tracks including Churchill, Keeneland Race Course, Turfway Park and Ellis Park. It's where he developed his relationship with Dale Romans, the trainer of Shackleford.
Talking with local horse afficianados over the years, along with racing in the shadows of the Twin Spires, allowed Jesus to truly appreciate the special Derby moment he experienced.
The marriage to Rolanda is another form of support for Jesus. A former jockey herself, Rolanda was nominated for an Eclipse Award her rookie year, winning 122 starts as the leading apprentice jockey at Philadelphia Park. The couple met while competing at Turfway in the late 1990s.
Rolanda sat in the Churchill stands on Derby Day rooting for her husband, along with Drew and Isaiah. Joining them were Jesus' children from his first marriage, Graciela (16) and Micah (14), along with Rolanda's mom and aunt.
"It was exciting that the kids got to go," Rolanda said. "I was very humbled that (Jesus) was there. There's only 20 horses and 20 riders that make it. I wanted to at least be there, plus I got to wear a big hat."
The Derby was Jesus' fourth ride on Shackleford, allowing time to develop a horse-jockey relationship. He described the colt as maintaining a nice, laid-back personality but remaining highly competitive during a race.
"The relationship is there," he said. "When I was in the paddock I was very emotional, nervous. I walked up to the trainer a little nervous, but as soon as I got on the horse it felt different."
Through the crowd's anticipation and excitement, the post parade and the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home," that calm feeling stayed with both jockey and horse from paddock to starting gate.
Down the stretch he came
Kentucky Derby 137 included a wide-open 19-horse field. Shackleford, a front-runner, did just that with a strong start. Shackleford and Jesus took the lead as they passed the Twin Spires for the first time.
"I knew I wanted my horse in front," he said. "It was just an amazing feeling."
Rounding the first turn, onto the backstretch, and all the way to the final turn, Shackleford remained the race leader. Jesus was able to employ his strategy of controlling a slow pace, allowing his horse to save energy for a final push.
"We were in control," Jesus said. "He paid attention. The horse was happy and he stayed focused. Neither of us lost our concentration through the backstretch."
"At the half-mile pole I thought it was awesome," Rolanda recalled. "He could slow down the pace, that makes it harder for them to catch you. There's not another better-case scenario."
It was then that Jesus experienced what few others ever will: Leading the Kentucky Derby down the home stretch.
"I felt like a wave came toward me," he said recalling the turn for home. "It was the most exciting moment of my life. The horse responded and felt like it got bigger."
Two competitors, Nehro and Comma To The Top, gained on Shackleford around the turn. Jesus said the horse saved enough strength for a final kick.
"He picked it up, he pulled away a bit," Jesus recalled. "That was the best feeling of my life. The way he ran, he gave me 110 percent and I gave 120."
Unfortunately, the mile and one-quarter Kentucky Derby distance is the longest race for three-year-olds to that point in their careers. Shackleford eventually faded before reaching the finish line.
"He was still fighting with Nehro at the eighth pole, but I felt him tire," he said. "But I could feel he was doing his best to finish up strong."
Jesus still felt he had a legitimate chance to capture the roses until Animal Kingdom, the eventual winner, flashed by in the last furlong. Shackleford reached the line in a strong fourth place position.
"When we saw Animal Kingdom he was still fighting," said Jesus. "It's still a good feeling to be able to finish in the top four."
"We really thought he had a shot," Rolanda admitted. "I was hoarse for two days after. It was a very exciting race."
The ride continues
Thanks to the Kentucky Derby succes, Jesus will head to the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, riding Shackleford in the second leg of the Triple Crown series.
A good showing at the Preakness could sway Shackleford owners Michael Lauffer and W.D. Cubbage toward the Belmont Stakes, the third Triple Crown race, held June 11 in New York.
Shackleford remains a top contender for the Preakness with the race distance being slightly shorter (one mile and three-sixteenths) than the Derby.
Success at the Preakness and Belmont would make Shackleford a strong contender for the Breeders Cup Classic, showcasing the world's best thoroughbreds. This year's Classic will be raced Nov. 5 at Churchill.
Jesus and Shackleford both remain early contenders for Jockey and Horse of the Year pending their upcoming Triple Crown performance.
Romans works primarily out of Churchill throughout the year. Jesus wokrs as one of his usual riders.
Last year Jesus rode both of Romans' Derby contenders, First Dude and Paddy O'Prado, prior to the big race, but Jesus was bumped for higher-profile jockeys.
This year Romans stayed with his local hand, who led Shackleford to a better finish than his predecessors the year before.
Always with a smile on his face, Jesus displayed neither hostility nor bravado when discussing trainer and owner decisions.
"I can do just about whatever any other rider can do," he said. "The Hall-of-Famers get the best horses at the right time, but the horses make the jockeys. I'm glad the owners and trainer kept me on (Shackleford)."
The Derby ride was Jesus' first in a 22-year career, which includes over 15,000 mounts. He experienced his 2,000th win last October at Keeneland.
Jesus earned a stakes victory last year in the Grade-2 Firecracker, raced July 4 at Churchill, aboard Tizdejavu.
The other Bullitt County jockey
Shepherdsville resident Jesus Castanon is not the first jockey to have a tie to the Kentucky Derby. In fact, Bullitt County can boast a Triple Crown winner.
Charley Kurtsinger, known as "The Flying Dutchman" to long-time race fans, was born in Shepherdsville in 1910. He was elected to the Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1967.
Kurtsinger won two Kentucky Derby races, along with two wins in the Preakness and another two in the Belmont. His biggest moment came in 1937 when he led War Admiral to the Triple Crown.
The Dutchman also won the Derby and Belmont aboard Twenty Grand in 1931. He also rode Derby runner-up Head Play to a Preakness victory in 1933.
Kurtsinger is better known to younger fans as War Admiral's jockey during the match race in 1938 against Seabiscuit, showcased in a recent movie. Kurtsinger was portrayed by fellow Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron.