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"When I was in the Peace Corps in Colombia, I taught the poor natives that they had to make do with what they had. I was in the same boat. I didn't look for excuses."
Mixing Oranges and Horses
by Dick Evans The Miami Herald September 1988
The dew glistens atop the oranges, as the sun rises. Suddenly, the birds stop chirping and the ground starts to shake. From around the bend come three thundering thoroughbreds in a race down the narrow lanes between the rows of heavenly laden trees.
For three miles, the horses maneuver the tight curves and straightaways through the groves around Winter Haven, Fla. Then it's everyone in the lake for a cool dip.
Is this anyway to train thoroughbreds?
According to Janet Del Castillo, it's the best way.
"I raise them like I raised my three children, by using good old fashioned common sense" said Del Castillo, 43, a former Peace Corps volunteer who began training thoroughbreds fulltime four years ago. "I allow them to be horses, to do what comes natural. I put them in their natural environment so that they can frolic together, eat grass and definitely talk to each other.
"I tell them that I'll give them two weeks of devotion on the farm if they will give me two minutes of devotion on the horse track."
Del Castillo realizes most trainers and many owners laughed at her unorthodox training methods. "I would say the first couple of years I was like the Country Bumpkin coming to the big city. I had no money at all and had to do everything myself.
"I know some veteran trainers were laughing and snickering. But I didn't care. When I was in the Peace Corps in Colombia, I taught the poor natives that they had to make do with what they had. I was in the same boat. I didn't look for excuses."
On her 14-acre farm outside Winter Haven, she built barns, a mini-paddock and make-shift starting gates. She did it all - training the horses, riding them, feeding them, swimming them, bathing them and doctoring them like her own children - with the help of her three children.
In 1976, all the hard work started to pay off. First Prediction, a $2,500 castoff who had been given to a children's home in Central Florida, proved that Del Castillo's methods worked during a Cinderella racing career that produced $270.000 in earnings. "First Prediction saved my farm, she was a heavenly gift," said Del Castillo. "When I was first galloping First Prediction through the orange groves, I thought I was going three miles a day, but I was actually going closer to 51/2 miles."
Little wonder First Prediction went on to become known as the "Iron Maiden" with more than 70 career starts.
Make no mistake, Del Castillo trains her eight to fourteen thoroughbreds each year to run forever.
"I like to have a solid foundation in my horses before I take them to a race track," said Del Castillo, who was born in Oregon but raised in San Francisco where she worked with polo ponies before joining the Peace Corps. "By working them three miles through heavy sand, up and down hills and around tight turns, I am building a racing machine. I don't believe in drugs, so when my horses reach a point where they want to tear through the three-mile course, then I know they're ready to go to the race track."
That presents another problem, getting them to the tracks in South Florida. And, often, it's not to race, but just to get work out of a real starting gate. "I don't mind the drive down," she says of the 220-mile trip. "It's something that has to be done."
It can seem like a short trip home if her horse wins. "Nothing beats winning, nothing." It can be a very long trip home if her horse loses, or maybe doesn't even get into the race.
But the long and short of it is that Del Castillo believes in her method.
"I train a lot of young fillies, and some are hyper and delicate and tend to tie up or get nervous when they run. But when they are home, they are with their friends and can talk and play together. It's not their natural life style to be cooped up at a track for 24 hours a day. God meant for them to graze and to be moving all the time. I know it may sound silly, but I think it's important to let horses be horses."
Asked if she would like to become a conventional-type trainer, Del Castillo was quick with an emphatic "NO."
"But I would," she added, "like for owners to have enough confidence in me and my training methods to let me have their horses from age 18 months to 2 1/2 for what I think is solid progressive type training. I also would love for an owner to come to me and say, "Here is $20,000 or $30,000, go out and buy me a good horse."