- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

BALTIMORE — The railbirds are chirping with a hot tip: Agent Gene Short is back with another young rider. Empty your wallet; there’s money to be made.

Short arrived 17 years ago with a teen jockey fresh from the Louisiana bush tracks who revolutionized Maryland racing. Kent Desormeaux set two national single-year victory records in four years, won two Eclipse Awards as the top apprentice and journeyman rider and turned long shots into 6-5 favorites. Desormeaux was the hottest thing in local racing in a generation before he left in 1990 to continue his success in California.

Fourteen years later, Short has returned with another unknown teen rider, this time from Maracaibo, Venezuela. The two met at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., three months ago, and Short convinced Abel Castellano Jr. to leave Miami for a short stint. The 19-year-old won his first race aboard Dream Dancer.

“I said, ‘Look at this — I’ve got a rider,’” Short recalled.

Castellano may not be the next Desormeaux, who undoubtedly is headed for the Hall of Fame after three Eclipse Awards and two Kentucky Derby victories. But Castellano won four races in his first six days at Pimlico Race Course after he arrived May1, starting some buzz that he soon will become the leading rider.

And that means Short, the folksy agent from Arkansas who would rather have people believe he’s a “dumb hillbilly” than the smartest man in the room, is back. It’s akin to Rock Newman finding another heavyweight fighter in the Bronx. Bettors are learning to use anything Castellano rides in their exactas and triples.

“It was like I never left,” Short said. “Did some of [Castellanos fast start] have to do with me? It probably did. The trainers threw me on horses sight unseen. They said, ‘If you think enough to come up here with this kid, then he must be able to ride,’ and as soon as they saw him they started giving me calls.”

Because they have seen Short work the overnight race list with the versatility of a Wall Street trader. Short often chose from among the best three or four entrants for each of Desormeaux’s races, using his daily “trouble sheet” of horses that lost because of poor riding or bad luck. Short aptly juggled trainers and owners — no small feat in a business in which a wrong word can cause exile from stables small and large.

Short gave Desormeaux “live mounts,” and the “Cajun Kid” gave incredible rides. Desormeaux once nearly fell at the top of the stretch at Laurel Park, when he had both legs out of the irons, but still won in the final jump. He stole a stakes race aboard a nondescript shipper from Charles Town, W.Va. There was even a 99-1 long shot victory at Gulfstream Park, where Miami bettors, unaware of the rider’s reputation, overlooked him on a horse that would have been 10-1 in Maryland.

Short and Desormeaux were inseparable despite their 14-year age difference. Desormeaux lived with Short’s family because it was the only way to convince Desormeaux’s parents to let him leave Maurice, La., at age 16. Short assured them Desormeaux would earn his high school diploma and stay out of the trouble that sometimes finds teenagers who make $750,000 annually. Hence, Desormeaux was often found on the neighborhood basketball courts.

Desormeaux’s family eventually followed Kent to Maryland. His father and brother are trainers and established small stables, that Desormeaux sometimes rode, though not to the exclusion of better horses elsewhere. Desormeaux’s sweetheart also followed, and they married and are still together. But Desormeaux eventually left to pursue the nation’s top 3-year-old colts each spring, which seldom develop in Maryland anymore. Dominating Maryland wasn’t enough for the impatient phenom, who wanted to become the next Chris McCarron or Jerry Bailey.

Desormeaux chose the southern California circuit, known for its great horses and Hall of Fame riders. It was risky. For instance, Steve Cauthen nearly destroyed his career when he left New York shortly after winning the 1978 Triple Crown aboard Affirmed. After losing 110 straight races in California, he bolted for England.

But Desormeaux won a meeting title in the first year and became a top-five staple on the California circuit. It was an incredible accomplishment, but Desormeaux still wanted to ride several winners a day as he did in Maryland. He won nearly 250 races annually in the early 1990s, but that was only half his Maryland totals. While he may have doubled his overall earnings, he remained anxious for more success.

And that’s where Short and Desormeaux began to part over a four-year period that finally ended with Short walking away in 1996. James Carville would sooner leave Bill Clinton than Short would part from Desormeaux, but the pressure was too much. Coupled with a divorce six months earlier, Short was down 40 pounds to 157 on his then-gaunt 6-foot frame. When the two exchanged heated words one morning, it was too much for Short to continue to endure.

“I just got so burned out,” Short said. “I was just hung over from the stress. I couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t fun anymore.”

The 10-year relationship ended with regrets on both sides that have since been reconciled. Desormeaux and Short still see each other at races nationwide.

“I might even some day work for him,” Short said. “There is no better rider than Kent, and I still love him like a son.”

Short spent the next three years selling cars, building houses and making custom furniture in Arkansas. He didn’t even watch the Kentucky Derby on television. Racing was behind him … until phone calls from a racetrack friend each month during his exile finally lured Short back.

In 2000, Short started booking mounts for jockeys at Oaklawn Park and then Prairie Meadows in Altoona, Iowa. It seemed like a long fall from the glamorous California circuit, where Hollywood figures watched from the turf club instead of farmers in the stands escaping their fields. Even worse were the arrogant agents bragging of meager accomplishments, unaware Short once managed the nation’s leading rider.

“I try not to stand out and be humble,” he said, “but in my mind I’m laughing, thinking, ‘If you only knew.’”

In 2001, Short won the Prairie Meadows meeting with jockey Terry Thompson. Finally, it wasn’t just about Desormeaux. Short then scouted for a young prospect with a clean cut demeanor and hard work ethic. Another agent suggested Castellano, who was buried in the Gulfstream standings.

Castellano is from a family of jockeys. His father and uncle rode in Venezuela, while older brother Javier has won more than 1,100 races in the United States and the recent Aqueduct winter meeting. After riding two winners in his native Venezuela at 16, Castellano followed his brother to Miami in January 2000. There were plenty of “scary moments” that nearly sent him back to South America, but Castellano broke through the isolation after learning English while riding in Louisville, Ky. He would soon travel to New Orleans, Hot Springs and back to Miami seeking mounts.

Castellano scratched out moderate success, winning 328 races in three years. He’s still young in the irons but knows how to move up a late runner in the stretch.

“He’s a very strong finisher — very good hands,” trainer Carlos Garcia said.

Castellano finished fifth during Oaklawn’s winter meeting and chose Maryland as his next step toward riding in California or New York. Castellano and Short drove 17 hours despite knowing of no firm commitments in Maryland. They merely had Short’s reputation as an entree to old friends who might ride Castellano.

“Friends are friends, but business is business,” Short said. “I see so much raw talent in this kid. When he reaches his level, he’ll be one of the top riders and go wherever he wants. I think he can go to New York and do OK now, but we came here to win a bunch of races and let people get familiar with him.”

Castellano now rides most races. Some of the success is Short. Some of it is Castellano.

“Abel’s very strong down the lane like Kent,” Short said. “They have a different style, but they’re both patient riders who sit off the pace. Is he a Kent Desormeaux? No. Could he get to that level? Yes.”

Said Castellano: “Gene opens the doors and everybody likes him. He knows how to find the best horse. He’s going to be the top agent again. It’s the same story again like Kent Desormeaux.”

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