08/08/2012 12:47PM

Ellis Park: Hernandez moves to next level with Whitney score aboard Fort Larned

Barbara D. Livingston
Fort Larned wins the Whitney under Brian Hernandez Jr.

Perhaps the most exciting part for Brian Hernandez Jr. is not what happened Saturday, when the racing world was watching as he won the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga aboard Fort Larned. Nor has it been the hundreds of congratulatory phone calls, texts, tweets, and way-to-gos as he made his morning rounds upon his return to Churchill Downs.

Although, as Hernandez said Wednesday morning, “It’s all sinking in now, and it’s been pretty unbelievable.”

No, the most exciting part for Hernandez might well be that he has crashed through that glass ceiling, the one that separates the big-name jockeys from their colleagues. Hernandez, 26, has been riding in relative obscurity in Kentucky and Louisiana since 2003, and while many insiders have regarded him as capable and underrated, he has rarely been afforded the opportunity that owner Janis Whitham and trainer Ian Wilkes gave him last weekend.

After Hernandez was aboard Fort Larned in defeating Successful Dan in the June 30 Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows, Whitham and Wilkes agreed to send Hernandez on his first trip to Saratoga by giving him the Whitney mount. Hernandez took full advantage, giving Fort Larned a perfect ride for a clear-cut triumph in the $750,000 race.

“It was a huge honor just for them to keep me on the horse,” said Hernandez, who grew up in Louisiana watching his father compete as a jockey against future stars such as Kent Desormeaux, Calvin Borel, Robby Albarado, and Mark Guidry. “We were really comfortable the whole trip. Into the second turn, he switched leads and really jumped into the bridle, and that’s when I started getting pretty excited, especially knowing what Ian had told me about how great the horse had been training.”

Hernandez is currently riding at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., while making his home in Louisville, where he was sixth in the jockey standings at the Churchill spring meet with 24 winners. Hernandez and his fiancée, Jamie Radosevich, will be married in late September on a cruise to the Bahamas, so clearly this is an exciting time in his life, both personally and professionally.

“There’ve been times before when you’re pretty down and you get passed over and you think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” he said. “But then you look at guys who’ve been riding 20 years or more, and all their hard work and dedication is paying off today. That’s the way I’ve been, hoping for something like this to come along. I’ve just kept working and hoping that one day it’d come.”

Into Friday action at Ellis, Hernandez was just six winners away from the 1,000-win milestone. That’s just more good news piled atop great news. “Ian told me that I’ll be riding Fort Larned from here on out,” he said.