Bobby Zen

It was back in 2006 and Brian Hernandez, Jr. was mired in 12th place in the jockey standings at Churchill Downs with 14 wins. It wasn’t that he had been a failure. He won an Eclipse Award in 2004 as the nation’s top apprentice, winning 243 races that year. And before moving to the Kentucky circuit in 2006, he was among the top riders at Evangeline Downs and Delta Downs in his native Louisiana. It’s just that Hernandez had larger goals and he was starting to worry they would never come to fruition.

“There was one point right after I lost the bug around 2006 that I got pretty discouraged. I was planning on packing it in and returning to Louisiana,” he said Sunday, a day after his winning ride aboard Mystik Dan (Goldencents) in the GI Kentucky Derby and two days after he captured the GI Kentucky Oaks with Thorpedo Anna (Fast Anna).

But something made him stay, and it was the best decision of his career. Hernandez is anything but an overnight sensation. But he never quit, never stopped working and never lost the desire to be one of the leading riders in the sport. It took some time, but it looks like he has made it. Ordinary riders don’t win the GI Kentucky Oaks and the GI Kentucky Derby on back-to-back days, with each win coming as the result of a perfect ride.

“I’m hoping that we opened up some eyes,” the 38-year-old Hernandez said.

He was born in Louisiana, where his father, Brian Hernandez, Sr., was riding on the Delta Downs-Evangeline Downs circuit. It didn’t take the younger Hernandez long to figure out what he wanted to do.

“We grew up around Evangeline and Delta Downs where my dad was a jockey,” Hernandez said. “My little brother, Colby, and I grew up watching him race and we both wanted to be jockeys. There’s a photo floating around of me when I was about six years old wearing my dad’s jockey pants and my saying that some day I was going to win the Kentucky Derby.”

Like his father, he started off at Evangeline and Delta and in 2004 won 243 races and was named champion apprentice. After winning 100 races in 2005 without his apprentice allowance, he decided to move on to Kentucky in 2006, which would prove to be one of the worst years of his career. He won only 65 races.

“I was a young kid and my business kind of tailed off,” he said. “It was one of those things. We fell out of the pecking order. We had to put our nose to the grindstone and work it out. Here in Kentucky, trainers want too see if you’re going to stick things out and make things work. More than anything, it took putting in the time and the effort and having the kind of work ethic that says, ‘Hey, we’re just as capable of winning on your horse as any jock.’”

His fortunes would improve and in 2012 he won the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic with Fort Larned (E Dubai). But that changed little. He remained a middle-of-the-pack jockey in Kentucky.

“The thing about my career is I’ve been fortunate to ride for many of the same guys for a long, long time,” he said. “That’s the thing about when you ride for outfits. Guys go through cycles. There will be some years when they have really good horses and some years they don’t. You have to stay loyal to the guys you ride for and you have to hope those guys stay loyal to you, which they have for the last 10 to 12 years.”

In 2016, he won 156 races, the most since his apprentice year. That caught the attention of trainer Kenny McPeek, who started riding Hernandez in 2017 and would soon become his go-to rider. It was exactly the break Hernandez needed.

Hernandez has won 232 races for McPeek, including 25 graded stakes. The list includes winning rides in the GI Ashland S., the GI Breeders’ Futurity and the GI Alcibiades S.

“He knows what to do out there,” McPeek said. “I always had a world of confidence in him. Rarely second guess anything he does.”

As the year began, McPeek had a pretty good idea that he had some special horses in his barn. Mystik Dan won only one of three starts in 2023, but the win came in a rapidly run maiden race at Churchill Downs in which he turned some heads with a 7 3/4-length victory. He was fifth in his 3-year-old debut in the Smarty Jones, but followed that up with an eight-length romp in the GIII Southwest S. He then finished a well-beaten third in the GI Arkansas Derby. He wasn’t winning every race, but on his best days, it appeared that he had the talent to beat the very best. Of course, getting a perfect ride doesn’t hurt.

Mystik Dan broke from the three hole and Hernandez instantly steered him to the rail out of the gate. He stayed glued to the rail while tracking front-runner Track Phantom (Quality Road). A narrow hole opened up as the field turned into the stretch and Hernandez and Mystik Dan squeezed their way through. After having saved ground every inch of the way, Mystik Dan had just enough left to hold off fierce late runs from Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) and the Japanese runner Forever Young (Jpn) (Real Steel {Jpn}).

“Brian Hernandez gave him the ride,” McPeek said. “Look, he doesn’t win the race without the job Brian did.”

“It means a lot more winning it the way we did because that was the trip we envisioned,” Hernandez said. “I talked to Kenny about it. After we drew the three hole, that was kind of the trip I had envisioned. That’s the beauty of riding for Kenny. He doesn’t give me any instructions. He entrusts me to go out there and give the horse the best trip we can. When we drew the three hole I watched a lot of replays and picked out a horse we could follow that would get us to the second turn. When we crossed under the first time Track Phantom was on the lead and I was thinking ‘Oh, man this is working out better than I dreamed.’ It was a magical moment.”

It was more of the same in the Kentucky Oaks. Hernandez guided Thorpedo Anna to the lead right from the start, never left the rail and never allowed another horse to get past him. Thorpedo Anna won, drawing away, by 4 3/4 lengths.

With top jockeys like Tyler Gaffalione, Luis Saez, Florent Geroux and Jose Ortiz all calling the Kentucky circuit home, the competition at the Churchill meet will be fierce. But Brian Hernandez, Jr., who says he may ride in Saratoga this year, won’t have to take a back seat to anyone. Not after the weekend he had.

Why No Inquiry

Did Sierra Leone cost Forever Young the win in the Derby? Maybe.

In the stretch, Sierra Leone continued to bear in and was leaning all over Forever Young and bumped him at least six times. Had the two horses been separated by a couple of lengths at the wire, it would have been no big deal. But Forever Young, who was third, lost by two noses in one of the closest Derby finishes in history, and you can make a case that he might have won had Sierra Leone not laid all over him. Japanese rider Ryusei Sakai didn’t claim foul, but that doesn’t mean that the stewards couldn’t have posted an inquiry and taken a look at the roughly run stretch. Taking down Sierra Leone was hardly a no-brainer, but at the very least the stewards should have taken a closer look at the stretch run.

The post The Week in Review: Persistence Pays Off for Derby-Winning Jockey Hernandez appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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