by Karen M. Johnson
Saul Castellanos, a familiar face for the past 20 years at New York Racing Association [NYRA] tracks, first as a foreman and now as head assistant for veteran trainer Mark Hennig, said just being named a finalist for the 2019 Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards [TIEA] has made him feel like a winner.
"Being a finalist means a lot to me and my family," Castellanos, 47, said on a recent morning at Belmont Park, while his Chihuahua, Luna, sat at attention on his lap. "But it also means something for the industry. We need awards like this. We workers want people to believe in us. This award is one of the greatest things to do for people who work seven days a week. Awards like this motivate me."
Castellanos, a native of Mexico, is among three finalists in the category, "Leadership - Racing Award". The winner will be announced at a ceremony at Keeneland on Oct. 11. The TIEA recognizes the achievements of dedicated individuals working in the racing and breeding industries who may not otherwise be acknowledged for their important contributions.
The awards, which carry prize money, were created in 2016 by Godolphin's Sheikh Mohammed and are presented in partnership with the National Horsemen's Benevolent Association, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, The Jockey Club, and Breeders' Cup.
The other finalists for the "Racing Award" are Thomas Brandebourger, an assistant to Chad Brown, NYRA's year-end leading trainer the past four years, and Dustin Heath, the farm trainer at WinStar in Kentucky.
Jenny Carpenter is another New York-based finalist, in the category of "Leadership - Breeding Award", and is being recognized for her work as the manager of Albert Fried Jr.'s Buttonwood Farm in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Castellanos is proud of the path that led him to becoming Hennig's assistant, even when considering the stumbles he had along the way.
"In our country the dream is to come to America, for a lot of reasons," Castellanos said. "I wanted to come to America because my older brother, Rafael, was here. And I wanted to be like my brother. And I wanted to be able to go back to Mexico to visit, with dollars in my pockets.
"When I left my country, my Daddy told me he knew I would do good in America because I'm so nosey," he added. "He didn't mean that in a bad way. He knew I wasn't a shy person. He knew I had dreams and goals. And being nominated for this prestigious award proves that."
Castellanos and his nine siblings grew up on farm land owned by their family in Jalisco. While Castellanos was comfortable working with the cows and horses on the family farm, Thoroughbreds had not been on his radar until he arrived in the United States as a teenager in 1988 to work alongside his older brother, Rafael, a foreman in the Arlington Park barn of training great D. Wayne Lukas. It was there that Castellanos first met Hennig.
"Mark [Hennig] was Wayne's assistant," Castellanos said. "The pony, Reggie, that Mark rode in the mornings was the first horse that they let me walk. A beautiful roan pony. I was walking him one morning and the pony sneezed. I was scared and I thought I did something wrong, so I let go [of the shank]. Everyone saw . . . everyone but my brother . . . and they were laughing.
"Three months later, my brother said to me, 'Just so you know, they told me about the pony.'"
Castellanos quickly honed his horsemanship skills and the following year when Lukas shipped a large contingent of horses to Gulfstream Park to compete at the 1989 Breeders' Cup, including the eventual winner of the Mile, Steinlen, he was entrusted to be the night watchman.
"I didn't blink when I was watching those horses," Castellanos said with a laugh. "That was a really good experience for me."
Castellanos would later move on to grooming horses for Lukas at Churchill Downs and Oaklawn Park. It was a heady time in the Lukas barn, with champions Criminal Type, Open Mind, and the aforementioned Steinlen, taking up residence in the future Hall of Famer's shed row.
And because of that, Castellanos said he and his coworkers felt a tremendous amount of pride to be working for Lukas, and that sometimes manifested itself in a swagger as they walked en masse through the Churchill Downs' backstretch on their way to lunch.
But Castellanos said he never got too cocky, thanks to his late father, Jose, who urged him to stay humble and grounded. Today, Castellanos continues to get guidance from his biggest supporter, his 78-year-old mother, Luz, who lives in Houston, and who he communicates through FaceTime on a daily basis. He said he has close relationships with all of his siblings, including the eldest, Rafael, who currently works for the horse transportation company, Tex Sutton, and the youngest, Miguel, an assistant trainer to Mike Maker in Kentucky.
Castellanos credits both his parents for instilling in their children the importance of a close-knit family. He also said he learned many other life lessons from his mother and father, ones that molded him into the person he is today.
"When I went back to Mexico for one of my first vacations to visit family, I was coming from America with my little brother, Miguel," Castellanos recalled. "We were staying at my Daddy's house. About a week after we got there, he wakes us up in the morning, like at 7 o'clock. He said, 'Okay kids, time to go back to work the land.' I looked at Miguel like, 'He's kidding, right?'
"I told my father that I didn't want to work because I had money. I had dollars, and that he could pay [people who needed money] to do it. That was the wrong thing to say. He went off on me and told me he didn't want any of his kids to ever say that to him. He told me, 'You're the same as everyone else. You're not worth more because you have money in your pocket.' It's really thanks to my father that I became a successful person in this country."
Following a period of time with trainer Danny Peitz, during which Castellanos groomed sprinting sensation, Capote Belle, whose sparkling resume included a pair of 1996 stakes victories in New York, the Grade 1 Test and Grade 2 Prioress, he moved on to work as a groom for trainer Shug McGaughey.
Not long after, he began working for Hennig and graduated from foreman to head assistant several years ago. Among the graded winners trained by Hennig that Castellanos has played a role in developing are millionaires Gold Mover, Raging Fever, Summer Colony, Eddington, Mystic Lady, and Gygistar.
It was Hennig, who nominated Castellanos for the TIEA.
"When I read about the awards, I thought, 'Who is more worthy than Saul,'" Hennig said. "He has always worked hard and done well and looked to advance himself. I also think he's a good leader around the backside, not just in this barn, either. I see people come to Saul for his assistance on one matter or another all the time. He's kind of like the mayor of the backside. It doesn't matter whether it's in New York or at Gulfstream or when we ship someplace for a day . . . he knows everybody, everywhere. And everybody seems to enjoy being around him, and that's a key to success for a lot of people, no matter what business you're in."
Castellanos shared that he was recently asked by someone on the backstretch what it felt like to be the sole Latino finalist for the "Leadership - Racing Award".
He answered, "I have had the same opportunities as the other two [finalists]. I don't have a mind for discrimination. It's about who you are, not where you're from."
But that doesn't mean that Castellanos, who is gay, hasn't been on the receiving end of discrimination.
"It's better [nowadays], but being gay and Spanish on the racetrack is tough," he said. "It's tough to hear what is said to me. But no matter who you are, you can be successful and be whatever you want. You can disprove them. I know who I am."
That type of positivity is one of the things about Castellanos that impresses Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who has known him since the 1990s.
"He's one of the best guys on the backstretch," Velazquez said without hesitation. "I love to be around him. He's so positive. I've never seen a time where he is rude or negative. He's always bringing a smile to people's faces. He's just a great person, overall. I'm really glad he got nominated, it's well deserved."