The broken bones, separated shoulders and concussions are the cost of doing business for jockeys. They climb atop 1,100-pound horses, after all, push them to speeds of 35 miles per hour, and maneuver them inches apart in a crowded field of as many as 13 other colleagues atop their own hurtling thoroughbreds. Javier Castellano has experienced the toll of those injuries and is prepared for those risks.
What Castellano, a Hall of Fame rider, was not ready for was a call from the health department in Broward County, Fla., in late March, telling him that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. He had just run three miles in the sweltering South Florida heat, getting ready for a weekend of lucrative stake races.
“Do you have the right Castellano?” he asked the voice on the other end of the phone. He had just returned from New York, he explained, where he had sheltered in his Long Island home with his family, not even going to the grocery store.
“What do I do?” he asked.
He was told to stay home for 14 days, but that presented another dilemma. When Castellano, 42, rides the winter meet in South Florida at Gulfstream Park, he stays with his 64-year-old mother, Neila Castellano. When he told her that he was checking into a hotel, she was having none of it.
“You don’t go anywhere. I’ll take care of you,” she said. “God will take care of us. We will take care of each other.”
On Saturday, Castellano will ride Farmington Road in the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes. Do not mistake that for a return to normal for Castellano or for thoroughbred racing.
Over the past three months, Castellano has twice quarantined away from his wife and three children, sitting idly while missing scant opportunities to ride. Jockeys are the ultimate gig workers of the athletic world. They are self-employed and must finish first, second or third in a race to collect a meaningful paycheck. Until this month, horse racing was largely shut down across much of the United States.
This week, the Belmont Stakes will hardly be the Test of the Champion that horse racing aficionados have come to know and love.
Instead of being the final leg of the Triple Crown, it will kick off the series for the first time because of the postponements of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Instead of 150,000 people filling the grandstands on Long Island, there will be no spectators and only a bare-bones staff of grooms, trainers and assistant starters who will wear masks and practice social distancing. Instead of its grueling mile-and-a-half distance, the race has been shortened to a mile and an eighth.
Still, Castellano’s convalescence could have been worse. He had a sore throat and mild headache along with more than a few panic attacks. He got them early in the public health crisis, when accurate information was low and anxiety was higher.
“No one really could tell me what to expect. It was mentally hard,” Castellano said. “You wonder if you are going to wake up tomorrow unable to breathe, or if you are going to see your kids again.”
One morning, his mother woke up with a cough and a headache.
“I was scared — what did I do to my mother?” he said. Fortunately, it was a false alarm and Neila recovered quickly.
Two weeks later, after testing negative for the virus, Castellano returned to New York, where the racetracks had already been shut down. He spent 10 days at home helping his wife, Abby, with the distance learning of their daughters Kayla, 14, and Sienna, 11, and to keep their 7-year-old son, Brady, calm.
In the meantime, Castellano’s agent, John Panagot, scrambled to find his rider some work. About the only place running where they had clients was Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. But, because New York was in its most deadly days of the pandemic, the track required riders from the state to quarantine for two weeks somewhere else before being allowed to ride. So Castellano returned to Florida and went to his mother’s house.
“He was isolated from his family and, like a lot of people, needed to work,” Panagot said. “He can’t work from home.”
Not only does Castellano need a horse to ride, he must win to collect 10 percent of the first-place check; or finish second or third to collect 5 percent of those purses. There is no collective bargaining agreement. There are no guaranteed salaries — exorbitant or otherwise.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 16, 2020
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
If Castellano finishes fourth or worse during races at Belmont, he picks up a $125 mount fee. Panagot gets 25 percent of that and Castellano’s valet, who takes care of his equipment, gets 5 percent. By the time Castellano pays them and various other fees, half of his mount fee is gone.
“If I finish fourth by a hair, I’ve risked my life for $60,” Castellano said.
Still, he knows how fortunate he is to be back at work during the pandemic. For 23 years now, he has been diligent enough in the early mornings at the racetrack working out horses that he wants to ride in the afternoon. He twice won the Preakness Stakes and is a member of the horse racing Hall of Fame.
Castellano is talented enough that of the nearly 29,000 mounts he has had, 5,259 of them have ended up in the winner’s circle. Altogether, the horses that Castellano has ridden have won more than $345 million in purses. When Belmont Park opened last month for training, Castellano grasped for what he felt was normalcy — even if it came with face masks and gloves.
“When you touch the ground at the track, you forget about everything,” he said. “It’s so competitive and you are doing something you love.”
Then, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, touching off weeks of protests in a country already reeling from the pandemic and rocketing joblessness. The world outside the racetrack became even more complicated.
The jockeys’ room in New York, like the city itself, is a melting pot. Castellano is Venezuelan, Jose and Irad Ortiz are from Puerto Rico, Luis Saez is from Panama and Kendrick Carmouche is African-American.
On the opening day of Belmont’s meet, every rider in the colony came to the paddock before the first race and stood for a moment of silence to honor those who died of Covid-19, and as a nod to medical professionals. Then, Castellano and his colleagues took a knee in solidarity with protesters calling for changes to policing.
What had he learned from a harrowing three months?
“We got to pray for each other,” Castellano said. “We got to love each other more.”