05/30/2007 11:00PM

19 years later, jockey gets a fresh start


MIAMI - Nobody would have blamed jockey Constantino Hernandez if he "needed a race" when he rode Falcon's Dream in Monday's third event at Calder Race Course. After all, it was the first mount for Hernandez in more than 19 years.

The last time Hernandez had ridden was on April 23, 1988, his 31st birthday, in a 1 1/8-mile turf race at Calder. His horse, Flying Rice, fell suddenly while dueling for the lead entering the clubhouse turn. Hernandez was thrown to the ground and then trampled by several horses, one of whom stepped on his head.

Former jockey Roger Blanco was the first to reach Hernandez following the spill, and he realized immediately his friend was in dire condition.

"I was watching the race from one of the tables outside the jocks' room near the rail on the clubhouse turn," Blanco recalled. "When I saw the accident I rushed onto the track, and by the time I got to Constantino he was unconscious and convulsing."

Blanco accompanied Hernandez in the ambulance to the hospital, and during the ride the injured jockey's condition went from bad to worse.

"I didn't think he was even going to make it to the hospital," said Blanco. "He was convulsing so badly at one point I had to sit on his chest to help the paramedics hold him down. Once we finally arrived at the hospital, they wouldn't let me into the emergency room with Tino, because I wasn't family. So I waited outside with his girlfriend, and kept expecting one of the doctors to come out any time to tell us he had died."

Blanco said seeing his close friend and colleague in that condition nearly prompted him to retire from riding.

"I was a tick away from quitting that day," Blanco recalled.

Two months later Blanco was involved in a spill of his own, at Monmouth Park, that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Miraculously, Hernandez, now 50, survived his ordeal, although it would take three years before he would completely recuperate from his injuries.

"I was basically left brain-dead from the accident," Hernandez said Monday. "I don't recall how long I was unconscious following the spill. I do remember being hospitalized for three weeks and that I was basically brain-dead when they finally sent me home. I was like a little baby. I had to learn to do everything all over again. I went to therapy for a year, and little by little somehow they were able to wake my brain up again."

Born in Spain but raised in France, where he began his riding career, Hernandez enjoyed considerable success after coming to the United States in 1979 at the behest of the late owner-breeder Mahmoud Fustok. Over the next nine years, Hernandez won more than 1,200 races, including 28 stakes, riding mostly on the New York, New Jersey, and south Florida circuits.

After he recovered from his injuries, Hernandez, who speaks three languages fluently, spent several years working at a local French restaurant. He married his wife, Alina, 10 years ago and the couple had a son, Juan-Tino, five years later. And during all that time, he never stopped thinking about the possibility of trying to come back and ride again.

"At first I just had to get away from the racetrack," said Hernandez. "I loved riding so much I couldn't stand being around the races and the horses and not being able to ride. But then a couple of years ago I decided to see if I might be able to do it again. I began galloping horses on nearby farms, and little by little I got fitter and stronger. I started getting on horses for trainer Adrienne Moore at Gulfstream Park this winter before coming back to Calder with the hopes of resuming my career."

Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple. Hernandez was named on his first horse earlier in the meet, but track officials would not let him ride.

"Considering the nature of his accident and all the time he'd been away, we wanted Constantino to obtain signed releases from a doctor as well as the stewards granting him permission to ride again," explained Calder's president, Ken Dunn. "Basically he was like an apprentice jockey who needed to be okayed from the gate as well as by the outriders, for his safety and the safety of the other jockeys. He was finally given a clean bill of health by a physician and cleared by the stewards."

If Hernandez was rusty the first day back on the job, he certainly didn't show it. Falcon's Dream, among the longest prices on the board in the 2-year-old maiden claiming dash, broke alertly, dropped back into the pack, then rallied down the middle of the track, with Hernandez deftly angling him away from another rival who was drifting in his path in deep stretch. Falcon's Dream wound up in dead heat for third.

"It's an unbelievable feeling being able to ride again," Hernandez said shortly after the race. "I wasn't nervous at all before the race, just excited. And I feel great. Riding a race like this one today, five furlongs on babies, was the hardest thing for me. I was a champion at long-distance races, being able to feel the horse and know when to let them go. In a race like this one, you just have to rush them to win. That's really not my style."

Hernandez said his goal was not to come back just to ride the one race on Monday, but to return on a regular basis to what he loves doing best with the hopes of being able to resume his riding career - one that had apparently ended on the Calder turf course 19 years earlier.