From 'Rags' to Pletcher Riches

There wasn't a true Kentucky Derby prep run last weekend, but there was still major news on the Triple Crown front. It involved top rider Javier Castellano, who through his agent, Matt Muzikar, announced that Castellano would ride Algorithms and not Union Rags in the key Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 26 at Gulfstream Park.

The decision sort of shook up the racing world, being that Union Rags is considered by most to be the Derby favorite as we sit here in mid-February. Wagering certainly backs up that fact, as Union Rags ended Pool 1 of the KDFW as the 7-1 individual favorite. Algorithms was the clear 12-1 second choice, but Union Rags is the more proven horse at this point. So what went into Castellano's decision? A lot more than you probably think.

The reaction by many people after hearing the decision was that maybe Union Rags isn't as good as most of us thought, or at least, Algorithms is better. Or maybe, Castellano, who has ridden Union Rags in his last three starts including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, has questions about whether the colt can get the 1 1/4-mile distance. After all, he is by Dixie Union--a colt that had only one route win in his career--while Algorithms is by Bernardini. I don't believe either one of those were the deciding factor.

Here is what Muzikar had to say on Tuesday morning.

"It was a tough decision; it wasn't a black and white decision. A lot went into it," he said. "We delayed our decision until the last second, but Michael (Matz) needed an answer Monday morning (before Union Rags worked), so we had to decide. It takes nothing away from Union Rags or Michael. It's very difficult to give up a horse like Union Rags. Ninety-nine percent of the time our decisions are a lot easier to make. I didn't think we'd have to make this tough of a decision so early in the Triple Crown season."

In reality, the decision came down to nothing more than Castellano and Muzikar playing the odds and knowing where their bread is buttered. While Johnny Velazquez has been Pletcher's go-to rider for as long as anyone can remember, over the past couple years Castellano has become one of the top riders in the country, and if Velazquez is Pletcher's ‘A' then Castellano is now ‘1A'.

Example: Pletcher is making a mockery of the current Gulfstream meet, with a whopping 42 wins from 110 starters. Chad Brown, in second place, has saddled 14 winners. Castellano leads all riders at the meet with 53 wins and 255 mounts, while Velazquez is second in wins with 47 from 187 mounts. You do the math.

But getting back to the Triple Crown, Pletcher is as loaded with true contenders as he's ever been. Right now Castellano is the regular rider for at least four of Pletcher's top contenders: Algorithms, Gemologist, El Padrino, and Spring Hill Farm, who was an impressive allowance winner last week at Gulfstream. He also rode Discreet Dancer in both of his decisive victories, but Velazquez will be aboard in the Fountain of Youth.

So from Castellano's standpoint, it really was a calculated decision. If he stays on Union Rags he puts all of his eggs in one basket. By choosing Algorithms he not only stays on the runaway winner of the Holy Bull, but he also locks up the mounts on Pletcher's other top horses.

"You have to go with the odds," admitted Muzikar, who is also the agent for Cornelio Velasquez in New York, another rider that Pletcher often uses. "One trainer has four, possibly five, top Derby contenders. We're going to ride Spring Hill Farm in the Tampa Bay Derby most likely, and we'll probably ride El Padrino in the Risen Star, which is the day before the Fountain of Youth. Out of the top 15 Derby horses right now, four or five are with one particular trainer. We'd rather have an 80 percent chance than a 20 percent chance.

"Todd has always supported me as an agent. I have a very good relationship with him and we're very good friends. We had numerous talks about the decision."

When you consider all of those facts, Castellano's decision made sense, at least in terms of his business. Beginning next weekend in the all-important Fountain of Youth, we'll be able to find out if he made the right decision.

As for Union Rags and Matz, don't feel bad for them. Though they lost Castellano, they pick up Julien Leparoux, who is a top 5 rider himself. And short of an aging Calvin Borel, nobody is more comfortable at Churchill Downs than Leparoux.

I don't think Castellano's decision reflects poorly on Union Rags at all. As we've seen numerous times over the years, jockeys are not always the best handicappers. In this case, only time will tell.

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