01/28/2005 12:00AM

Hernandez holds own with best


Brian Hernandez Jr. remembers the first time he walked into the jockeys' room at Churchill Downs last spring.

"It was overwhelming,'' said Hernandez, who had just graduated from high school in Louisiana before heading to Kentucky. "Just coming from places like Evangeline and Delta, you step into the room at Churchill Downs and you got Robby Albarado, Shane Sellers, Mark Guidry, Pat Day, and Cornelio Velasquez. You go from riding against good riders to riding against the best riders in the country.''

By year's end, Hernandez was no longer in awe and was competing quite nicely against the best riders in the country. He finished second in the jockey standings in the fall meets at Churchill and Keeneland. He won 20 races at Keeneland, unheard of for an apprentice.

All told, Hernandez finished the year with 243 victories, and his horses earned $4.4 million in purses. Thus, it was no surprise when Hernandez was named the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey of 2004. Hernandez earned 164 of the 257 first-place votes cast, easily outdistancing Pablo Fragoso, who rode only four months of the year as an apprentice.

Hernandez, 19, is the son of jockey Brian Hernandez Sr. Both his father and mother wanted him to finish high school before trying to ride outside Louisiana. Hernandez worked horses in the morning, attended classes in the afternoon, and rode at night.

Hernandez won the riding title at Delta Downs before heading to Churchill. He said he got homesick at first and returned to Louisiana. His agent, Fred Aime, was about to go to Saratoga with Shane Sellers and told Hernandez, "Go home, and I'll see you in the fall.''

In addition to polishing his riding skills at Evangeline Downs - where he won 99 races and the riding title - Hernandez said he focused on his work ethic and how to handle himself in a professional manner.

"When I came back up this fall and I started winning races," he said, "I started feeling like 'I can do this. I can hang here. I fit in with those guys.' ''

Hernandez lost his weight allowance on Dec. 31, 2004. He is riding at Fair Grounds and plans to return to Kentucky this spring.

"The goal for this year is just win as many races as we can and keep rolling,'' Hernandez said.

Apprentice jockey: Brian Hernandez Jr.