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Top jockey’s COVID-19 case will increase pressure to shut horse racing

Horse racing remains one of the few major sports still operating in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic, albeit without fans in the stands, but it may be hanging on by a thread after a top jockey tested positive for COVID-19.

Javier Castellano, a Hall of Fame rider and four-time Eclipse Award winner, tested positive for the disease after arriving in Florida with plans to ride in this weekend’s stakes packed card at Gulfstream Park, topped by the $750,000 Florida Derby.

“Because of Gulfstream Park’s strict COVID-19 protocol, Javier was required to take a physical since he had recently flown,” his agent, John Panagot, posted on Twitter on Thursday. “Following his physical, he took the COVID-19 test on Tuesday,” leading to the positive result.

Panagot said Castellano, who last rode March 15, is asymptomatic and feels fine, but would self-isolate until he is medically cleared to return to the saddle. Castellano, 42, said in a subsequent tweet that he had been spending time with family and had no known contact with anyone diagnosed with the disease.

Gulfstream Park officials already were reportedly in discussions with local officials after Broward County ordered nonessential businesses to close Monday. The South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper on Tuesday quoted a local official as saying the management at The Stronach Group-owned track threatened to sue if the county attempted to shut it down, a report later denied by a TSG official.

In any case, as of this writing the Hallandale Beach racetrack is proceeding with plans to run through the weekend, one of its biggest of the year. But Castellano’s positive test will likely add to pressure on the track to close its doors, even though it caught the infection before it was able to spread further.

Meanwhile, the number of tracks has been dwindling in the last couple weeks, with Aqueduct, Fair Grounds and Charles Town among the most recent closures.

So even though many Nevada horseplayers have found creative ways to get around the shutdown of every racebook and horse betting app in the state by opening offshore accounts or using various residency ruses to access betting services still operating in other states, there soon may not be many — if any — wagering options left.

#RJhorseracing featured races

Pandemic or no, wagering or no, the #RJhorseracing handicapping crew isn’t about to stand down on a weekend when what would have been one of the major Kentucky Derby preps is being run. In addition to the Florida Derby, a 1 1/8th-mile test for 3-year-olds, we’re also taking on the $200,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks, run at 1 1/16th miles for 3-year-old filles.

In the latter, the crowd ’cappers are siding with the odds maker and backing 5-2 morning line favorite Tonalist’s Shape, who has won all five lifetime starts, including two graded stakes. They have Spice is Nice (3-1) to place and Lake Avenue (9-2) to show.

I can see where they’re coming from, but I’ll go with the Bill Mott-trained Lake Avenue, who should get the early lead to herself and also has a graded stakes to her credit. I’ll use Swiss Skydiver (10-1) and Tonalist’s Shape to round out my top three.

In the Florida Derby, which attracted a full field of 12 as well as an also-eligible runner, the crew is solidly behind 6-5 morning line favorite Tiz the Law. They have Ete Indien (4-1) as a solid second choice and Independence Hall (9-2) to show.

I am with my peeps as far as Tiz the Law being the horse to beat, as he’s been the most consistent top performer among the 3-year-olds this year and ended up atop the individual betting interests in two of the three Kentucky Derby future pools this year (he was second in the other, behind Authentic).

But what’s the fun of picking a horse who’s almost certain to be odds-on when the gates open. I’ll try to beat him with Gouverneur Morris (8-1), who’s been handled like a good one by trainer Todd Pletcher. I’ll use Tiz the Law to place and Disc Jockey (20-1) to show. I’m taking a stand against Ete Indien, given he’s stranded in the 12 hole and almost certainly won’t be able to gun to the lead as easily as he did en route to his victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes last month.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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