Castellano to ride longshot Watchmon in Belmont

Updated: June 8, 2005, 8:20 AM ET
By Richard Rosenblatt | Associated Press

NEW YORK - No Yankees cap sat atop Javier Castellano's head Tuesday morning at Belmont Park.

The jockey who rode beaten favorite Bellamy Road in the Kentucky Derby for Yankees' boss George Steinbrenner has a new horse for Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes -- long shot Watchmon.

Watchmon
AP/Ed BetzWatchmon will be ridden by Javier Castellano in Saturday's Belmont.

Feeling less stressed than he did before the Derby, Castellano climbed aboard Watchmon for the first time and worked the gray colt five furlongs over the Belmont training track.

Not bad, he said, for a horse likely to be among the longest shots in an expected field of 11 3-year-olds.

"You have plenty of horse," Castellano told his new boss, Watchmon owner Paul Pompa Jr., after returning to trainer Patrick Reynolds' barn. "He kicks in very good. I asked him for a little bit, and he took off. It was nice and easy."

The 1 1/2-mile Belmont could be a different story. Even though there won't be a Triple Crown on the line for the first time in four years, there's still the glamour matchup of Derby winner Giacomo vs. Preakness winner Afleet Alex.

However, the only other horse with Triple Crown experience is Andromeda's Hero, who finished eighth in the Derby and has never won a graded stakes race. That leaves eight other horses with a combined record of 16 wins from 54 starts -- one, Nolan's Cat, is 0-for-5 -- trying to pull off a huge upset.

Watchmon has won once in six starts, but that race was at 1 7/16 miles at Gulfstream Park on April 8.

"He can get the distance ... after 1 1/8 miles (in the Gulfstream race) he just exploded," Pompa said. "The question is whether he can class up. He may be 40-1, but who cares? A 40-1 shot wins every year in this race."

It sure seems that way. Four of the past six years have produced gigantic payoffs. Birdstone spoiled Smarty Jones' Triple try last year and returned $74 at odds of 36-1; in 2002, it was Sarava paying a record $142.50 at 70-1; in 2000, Commendable returned $39.60 at 19-1; and in 1999, Lemon Drop Kid paid $61.50 at 30-1.

In the past 12 Belmonts, only two favorites have won -- Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Point Given in 2001.

Castellano has won on long shots before, but he's been aboard some of racing best horses in the past year. The 27-year-old Venezuelan is the regular rider on 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, recent winner of the Met Mile, and Wood Memorial winner Bellamy Road, who could return from a minor foot injury for the Travers this summer.

"When you ride good horses like that, you got a lot of pressure," Castellano said. "Right now it's the Belmont, a big race, so I feel pressure. But not like those other races."

Watchmon can't win, can he?

"Anything can happen," said Castellano, who finished sixth aboard 40-1 shot Tap Dancer in his first Belmont last year. "I know I've got to beat Giacomo and Afleet Alex, but it's a mile-and-a-half.

"I hope we can do something. I'll watch the pace and I hope they go fast ... and we catch them in the end. It's a long way to go. I'll be patient and let him have his one kick."

Afleet Alex trainer Tim Ritchey is confident his athletic colt is ready for another top effort three weeks after he was nearly knocked down at the top of the Pimlico stretch by Scrappy T. But he certainly isn't discounting any of the Belmont contenders.

"You have two favorites, but you have fresh horses in the race that haven't gone through the rigors of five already demanding races like my horse and Giacomo," Ritchey said. "Any time you load in the gate, your horse has to run his race. You have to plan your strategy and you have to go out there and perform -- no matter who's in the field."

Put A.P. Arrow on the long shot list. A son of 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy, trainer D. Wayne Lukas' colt is 1-for-3 after beating Nolan's Cat in a 1 1/4-mile maiden race at Belmont on May 17. Lukas has won four Belmonts, the most recent with Commendable -- a maiden winner before his big score.

"In light of the horses that are lining up and his style, I think he fits the race good," Lukas said. "He's kind of my Commendable. I think he's got a high cruising speed and I think he'll stay forever."

As for Nolan's Cat, trainer Dale Romans tried to make a case for owner Ken Ramsey's decision to come to New York.

"We know it's a big step, but we think he'll love the distance," Romans said. "I don't think he'll embarrass us in any way."

Trainer Nick Zito has three horses in the field, Andromeda's Hero, Indy Storm and Pinpoint. Others set to run are Lone Star Derby winner Southern Africa, Peter Pan runner-up Reverberate and fourth-place finisher Chekhov.

Watch the Belmont on NBC this Saturday at 5 p.m. ET


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press