Life After the Racetrack: Retired Jockey Abel Castellano Turns Investigator

The shimmering gold lettering reads, “Jockey’s Quarters” at Keeneland Race Course. It’s like a gate where riders break to catch their mounts, and willingly sign autographs upon their return. The location is an inner sanctum, and not a place that’s seen much by the outside world. Coming out into the fray, the Breeders’ Cup weekend is nothing short of a hive of activity as the Keeneland green jacket corps secure the perimeter. It’s Saturday at the World Championships, which means it’s an early Christmas for the horse racing throng.

Jockeys are dressed for the occasion, resplendent in the silks of their horse’s stable. They lead a disciplined lifestyle based around fitness, and their prerace preparations are a mixture of old habits and the latest trends. Abel Castellano used to be one of them. With almost 12,000 starts and over $45 million in earnings, he knows the culture of the irons. Had he not suffered a concussion back in 2015, he’d still be plying his trade. You have heard of his superstar older (by six years brother), Javier, who has won a handful of Eclipse Awards. The Castellanos have a long history when it comes to riding professionally. It’s in their blood.

After a stint as a trainer which yielded some nice wins, Castellano made a major decision. He wanted to remain in the company of horses, something he had dearly loved since childhood, but it wasn’t clear how it would all pan out.

“I was looking for the chance to be a part of this great game,” Castellano said. “That’s when the executive director offered me a chance to become an investigator for the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission (DTRC).”

Like that jockey’s changing room, investigators lead a life sequestered. It’s one that resides almost exclusively behind the scenes. You blend in, leave the bright colors at home, and sunglasses, not goggles are the eyewear of choice. They must be disciplined in their daily rituals, and their professionalism is built on a series of equine experiences. Castellano has a unique toolkit, and offers much when it comes to the enforcement and compliance portions of his new job description.

He was hired by Sarah Crane, who was a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program, a former agent of the Thoroughbred Racing Protection Bureau, and like Castellano she comes from a horseman’s background, starting when she was a groom.

“It helps immensely to have skills like Abel does, and after a year, he has done just a phenomenal job, so we are lucky to have someone who knows horses and has been around them like he has,” Crane said.  

The switch to investigating involved his family. Being a jockey or a trainer adds up to major time away, and Castellano, who has three teenaged kids, was missing out on daily life. His wife was ably manning the post, but he knew that time was fleeting.

“I wanted to be near home, and be a dad,” he said. “Being an investigator gives me a number of great options, plus working with Sarah has opened my eyes to this side of things.”

Since joining the DTRC, Castellano has immersed himself in the language of security. Not only does he rely on the regulatory experience of Crane, but he also joined the Organization of Racing Investigators (ORI). Founded back in the 1990s, its purpose is to bring together industry professionals to provide support on a range of subjects when it is needed most.

“Picking up the phone and calling people that understand procedures has helped me solve problems,” the former jockey explained.

Attending his first ORI Conference back at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack in March, Castellano has continued to tackle the learning curve. He had the opportunity to come to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland as a first-year member of the Equine Security Team.

“Don Ahrens and Mike Kilpack offered me a spot, and I am thankful to get to be around some of the best investigators from around the country,” Castellano said.

As part of the team, he shadows the crack veterinarian staff, and collects test samples during the week for what is called the chain of custody. That ensures that the process is clean from start to finish. Overseeing the hired security staff is also a massive undertaking, but it is one that everyone relishes to protect some of the best horses in the world.

“We are lucky to have someone with his background, and he is a welcome addition to our group this year,” said Ahrens.

What Castellano soaks up at gatherings like these, he can take back to the DTRC. Being an investigator means that you are looking to keep all the equine athletes safe. It’s a big job. Not only do you have to be able to speak the language of veterinarians, but working with humans in general is a priority. Since Castellano rode and trained at Delaware Park, he knows the backstretch personnel very well. Maintaining a wall of separation though is essential for investigators, and it was one of Crane’s first lessons during his training.

“I learned as a trainer that listening is best, and that’s very important when you are looking at any issue,” he said. “I gather evidence, report on what I find, and you do that by listening.”

Back outside the jock’s quarters at Keeneland, it is a reunion for the Castellanos, as they embrace. Javier Castellano has several Breeders’ Cup mounts, and Abel is holding down a position in the packed purple paddock at Keeneland. He said he wouldn’t mind getting a leg up on one of the world’s biggest horse racing stages, but there’s a job to do. After Flightline’s signature win in the Classic, Castellano had the honor of escorting the horse safely back to his stall in the barn area. Not bad for his rookie season at the Breeders’ Cup.

For Abel Castellano, who comes from a family of jockeys, being with the horses is a true pleasure. One career has morphed over time, and as he said, there is nothing but gratitude for the chance to do what he loves most.

“I also wouldn’t trade the time with my kids,” he said. “I get to see them grow up, and the chance to be around this sport is a gift.”

The jockey has become an investigator, and it’s another opportunity of a lifetime.