Toby’s Corner: Eddie Castro and Mike Gonzalez

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Jockey, agent get chance at Kentucky Derby

Prince Valiant and jockey Mike Gonzalez romped to victory in the 1980 Louisiana Derby and vaulted into the Kentucky Derby discussion.

 

The horse looked like a player too, with a pedigree (Stage Door Johnny-Royal Folly, Tom Fool) that didn’t stop and the background supplied by trainer Jack Gaver Jr. and legendary owner/breeder Greentree Stable. Still a 5-pound apprentice, Gonzalez went along for the ride as the horse next tried the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland – with a Derby ticket in the balance. Prince Valiant went off as the 3-1 second choice behind favorite Rockhill Native.

“I dropped him in, saved ground, did everything right, but he never picked up the bridle,” Gonzalez said. “A few days later they found a bone chip and that’s as close as I ever got to the Derby.”

Thirty-one years later, he’s back – almost – as Eddie Castro’s agent. Jockey for Toby’s Corner, Castro will make his Derby debut if plans stay together over the next two weeks. No one is prouder than his agent.

“There’s never a last chance, right?” said Gonzalez, who rode for 19 years and retired in 1999. “I had a good run as a jockey. Now I’m more like a coach than an agent. I like what I do, I like working with Eddie.”

Gonzalez has been Castro’s agent since the Panama native moved his tack to the United States in 2003. Now 26, Castro won the Eclipse Award as the country’s top apprentice that year and has gradually found a spot in the upper tier – first in Florida, then in New Jersey, then in Kentucky, now pretty much anywhere he goes. He’s 12th on the 2011 earnings list and counts among his career highlights a Breeders’ Cup win, a national-record nine winners in a single day and multiple meet championships at Calder Race Course.

Castro grew up on his family’s produce farm in Panama, and graduated from that country’s jockey school as part of a class that included Fernando Jara and Jose Lezcano. Castro won 36 races in three months in Panama, earning a chance at the big time in the U.S. After talking to Panamanian political leader Raul “Baby” Arango by telephone, Gonzalez met the fledgling jockey at the airport in Florida and nurtured a career.

“He looked like he was 13 years old,” said Gonzalez. “He came to me very highly recommended and worked hard from the start. He’s quiet and humble – he congratulates me when we win a race. The hard work is paying off. Let’s just hope our horse stays healthy and everything keeps working out.”

Castro first rode Toby’s Corner in the Whirlaway at Aqueduct. The horse had won two in a row at Laurel and a stakes in New York came next on the agenda.

Trainer Graham Motion’s employee John Panagot sometimes books riders for the stable and called Gonzalez. Toby’s Corner was either going to run in the Whirlaway (Feb. 5) or ship south for the Sam Davis (Feb. 12) at Tampa Bay Downs. Panagot couldn’t commit to running and Gonzalez, whose jockey had finished fourth in Aqueduct’s Count Fleet Stakes aboard Arthur’s Tale, couldn’t commit to riding.

“He asked if we were open in the Whirlaway, but he wasn’t 100-percent sure they were going,” Gonzalez said. “I had a question about Arthur’s Tale so I wasn’t sure I could take the ride either.”

While at Disney World with his children, Gonzalez took another call from Panagot. Toby’s Corner was coming for the Whirlaway as long as Castro could ride.

“I didn’t have a book, I didn’t look him up, I didn’t do anything other than listen to John,” Gonzalez said. “He said the horse was working well and I said if they were sure he was coming, I’d give him the call.”

Toby’s Corner won the Whirlaway on a muddy track, running on late in the stretch to score by 2 lengths while Arthur’s Tale finished fourth under C. C. Lopez. A month later, Toby’s Corner finished third in the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct after being a little rank early and getting caught behind a slow pace.

“Eddie said he was a little rank and he just wanted to take him back and see if he’d settle,” said Gonzalez. “He said he learned some things about the horse and that he might ride him differently if he was in that situation again. It just didn’t go to the plan.”

Then came the Wood Memorial. Outfitted with blinkers for the first time in a race, Toby’s Corner relaxed inside and behind a quicker pace than the Gotham, emerged from behind horses at the quarter pole and rolled past five rivals in the stretch to win by a neck over Arthur’s Tale and heavy favorite Uncle Mo.

“Before he rode him, I told Eddie to watch the replays to see if he could learn a little bit and I said the horse should run all day based on his breeding,” said Gonzalez. “That was pretty much it. I don’t follow times, I just like to see how horses do it and I liked the way he had done it. Every race has been a step up for him and he improved again in the Wood.”

Gonzalez calls Castro “ice veins” for the jockey’s demeanor under pressure and expects another cool performance in the Derby. Castro won with his first Breeders’ Cup mount, Miesque’s Approval in the 2006 Mile, so knows at least a little about coming through in big moments.

“He’s calm in the big races and he’s really, really confident in this horse – he won’t show it, it’s all inside though,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a big, exciting thing, but he’ll be fine.”

 

*PHOTO: Toby’s Corner wins the Wood Memorial (Eclipse Sportswire).