12/06/2012 12:33PM

For Hernandez Jr., Breeders' Cup breakthrough was years in the making

Barbara D. Livingston
At 27, Brian Hernandez Jr. rode Fort Larned to victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 3, just his second BC mount and second Grade 1 win.

Brian Hernandez Jr. rode Cash Refund the first eight starts of the speedy gelding’s career in 2009 and 2010, winning five races, two of them stakes. But when Cash Refund’s connections decided to try the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Hernandez was replaced with John Velazquez. What would have been Hernandez’s first Breeders’ Cup mount turned instead into a lost opportunity.

“I thought I’d get to ride him,” Hernandez said. “They decided he needed a Breeders’ Cup rider.”

Cash Refund, who finished eighth, never turned out to be Breeders’ Cup material. Hernandez has. On Nov. 3, he won the $5 million Classic on Fort Larned, breaking from the gate fast enough to beat the other front-runners to the lead, doling out the horse’s speed in perfectly timed increments – and sending turf writers scurrying for biographical details. Few were unearthed. Not even the Breeders’ Cup had a standard bio available. Fort Larned was Hernandez’s second Breeders’ Cup ride, the Classic his second Grade 1 win. The victory took even Hernandez by surprise.

“You still sit up at night and think, ‘Wow, I won the Breeders’ Cup Classic,’ ” he said. “If someone would have told me when I left New Orleans last March that I’d even participate in it, I’d have laughed.”

While the wider racing world drew a blank on Hernandez, 27, his Classic win was no joke and no fluke. It came at the end of a breakout season that was late in coming but could usher in an era of higher-profile success. Hernandez has ridden races since 2003, when he was a high-school bug boy at Delta Downs and his home track, Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La. His father, Brian Sr., is an active jockey, as his is younger brother Colby. Hernandez is a straight arrow, no off-the-track concerns, and has a naturally light build – he comfortably makes 115 pounds. He has worked hard for years, persevered through lean seasons, and finally gotten a big break.

“He’s got it in him,” said Ian Wilkes, who trains Fort Larned. “It’s just a case of it coming out now.”

Wilkes was the engine moving Hernandez’s breakthrough 2012. When Hernandez left New Orleans last spring, his graded stakes record was 1 for 115, but he has since gone 7 for 28. Five of those wins came for Wilkes: three on Fort Larned, two on the injured 3-year-old Neck ’n Neck. Most important, Wilkes never wavered in his support of Hernandez as Fort Larned’s rider, even when Fort Larned finished third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, his BC Classic prep.

“There was never a question about taking him off,” Wilkes said.

In September, Hernandez went to Hoosier Park in Indiana to ride Neck ’n Neck for Wilkes in the Grade 2 Indiana Derby. Hernandez won that race and another graded stakes, the Indiana Oaks, for which he had picked up the ride on the high-class filly Grace Hall for trainer Tony Dutrow. Opportunity leads to opportunity. The more good horses a jockey rides, the more confident he becomes.

“I feel like I’ve always been right on the cusp, where I’ve been one step behind that really good horse,” Hernandez said. 

His last name is Hernandez, and trainers who don’t know better have tried giving him paddock instructions in Spanish, but Hernandez is not Latino and speaks only English. One of five children, he was born and raised in Lafayette, Cajun country’s heart, though his family is not Cajun. His father and brother still speak with the region’s strong inflection; Brian, who was married in September, has lost his accent.

“Since he left home, he’s changed a lot,” said Brian Sr.

Hernandez Jr.’s essence, though, seems intact. In the racing world, particularly that of central Louisiana, the three Hernandez jockeys have a reputation as polite, reliable, and hard-working – good people. The elder Hernandez is plying his trade this winter at Delta Downs, where he’d won five races from 31 mounts through Dec. 4. He rides far fewer horses than during his peak a dozen years ago, when he was the main jockey for prolific trainer Dale Angelle. At 48, Hernandez Sr. said he still feels good. The end of his career isn’t yet in sight.

“This stuff keeps me going,” he said.

DRF WEEKEND: Ortiz brothers make mark as New York jockeys

MORE: Violette debates facts on Lasix ban | Uneasy times for Ohio racing

Hernandez Sr. always is going. Besides his spot race rides, he’s one of two main exercise riders for trainer Keith Bourgeois. He rises at 5 a.m. and works between eight and 13 horses, seven days a week.

“I’ve had a lot of people work for me, and he’s the hardest worker − the best worker − I’ve ever had,” Angelle said. “Gets up out of bed, goes to work, works all day, always in a good mood. Not many people like that anymore.”

As with so many central Louisianans, there are horses in the Hernandez family background. Brian Hernandez Sr.’s grandfather owned bush-track racers, and Hernandez Sr. learned to ride as a child, but he was working at his father’s dry-cleaning business into his mid-20s when he took up with horses. Hernandez Sr. didn’t ride a race until 1989 at age 24.

“When he started working for me, he was just riding very few horses,” said Angelle, who used to be one of Louisiana’s top trainers. “I could see he had some ability, but he had to work at it.”

Brian Jr. − called B.J. as a kid − gave Angelle a different feeling when he came to the farm with his father to learn to gallop during the summer of his 13th year.

“B.J., from the time he started, I told his dad he was just a natural,” Angelle said. “When you start breezing horses in sets together, you can kind of tell. Some of them boys it doesn’t matter which horses they’re on – they just run for them.”

Hernandez long had desired to follow his father. Before he was old enough to start working, Brian went to Delta or Evangeline on weekends, soaking up the backstretch. At 12 he rode a couple of Quarter Horses and ponies in tiny bush-track races. He worked for Angelle for four years before getting a jockey’s license during his senior year, regularly riding in the same races as his father.

“One thing you have to do, when you’re out there, you’re out there to fulfill your own riding obligations first,” Hernandez Sr. said of the strange experience of competing against his son.

Hernandez Sr. made short forays outside Louisiana – to Chicago, Indiana – before his kids became school aged, but Hernandez Jr. went quickly to Churchill Downs to take advantage of his apprentice weight allowance. A polished rider for his age, Hernandez did well. During the spring 2004 meeting at Churchill, he won 21 races from 195 mounts, and that fall he went 23 for 176. The next spring at Churchill, in 2005, Hernandez won 25 races and almost $900,000 in purse money. That would be his best Churchill meeting until this season.

A gray period descended. Hernandez was making it after he lost the bug and got stabilized as a journeyman: His mounts never earned less than $2 million a season. But it felt as if he were running in place. He was working as hard as ever. Horse people seemed to respect his ability. But nowhere was the sense of ascendancy Hernandez and others had expected.

“Just like with anything else, sometimes you do get frustrated,” Hernandez said.

In 2007, Hernandez called his father, told him he wanted to leave Kentucky, that the hard work wasn’t paying off.

“He was depressed and didn’t know where he was going to end up,” Hernandez Sr. said. “I told him to keep working at it, that it would turn.”

Within weeks, Hernandez picked up two stakes horses. He stayed in Kentucky. 

Hernandez’s closest jockey friends are Corey Lanerie and Calvin Borel, with whom he shares a corner of the Churchill jocks’ room. Borel has a longstanding relationship with trainer Carl Nafzger, one that continued when Nafzger’s protégé, Wilkes, took over the bulk of Nafzger’s string a few years ago. Borel and Julien Leparoux in recent years have served as Wilkes’s main riders, but Hernandez got a touch of business, too.

“I’ve always tried to keep Brian involved,” Wilkes said. “He was working horses for me, and I would tell him to bear with me: I can’t ride you on a couple of these, but be patient.”

On Nov. 10, 2011, Borel rode Fort Larned to a 10th-place finish in an allowance race at Churchill. Fort Larned had flashed periodic talent, but a ninth-place finish had preceded the 10th, and Wilkes made changes. He fitted Fort Larned with blinkers, and he gave the mount to Hernandez when the horse ran back 17 days later. Fort Larned won by almost seven lengths.

“I went to New Orleans, kind of forgot about him, and one day I looked up and he was winning a stakes at Tampa,” Hernandez said.

Back at Churchill this spring, Fort Larned finished second in the Alysheba Stakes under Javier Castellano, then eighth in the Stephen Foster with Leparoux aboard. In the June 30 Cornhusker Handicap, the mount on Fort Larned was open, and Wilkes, who had been turning with greater frequency to Hernandez, gave him the ride. Fort Larned beat high-class Successful Dan by three lengths, and in the winner’s circle, Wilkes told Hernandez that owner Janice Whitham wanted him as Fort Larned’s jockey for the rest of the year.

“Brian definitely has developed as a rider, but the biggest change I see in him is his confidence,” Wilkes said. “As trainers start to believe in you, as owners start giving you better horses, you get a better feel about yourself, and Fort Larned really topped it off. I told him, you can see why Julien Leparoux and Johnny Velazquez ride so good – they ride these Cadillacs.”

Late in the Churchill fall meet, during which Hernandez won 16 races, Hernandez and his agent, Frank Bernis, announced plans to winter at Gulfstream Park. The motivating factor was to stay near the Wilkes string, but Wilkes assured Hernandez that wintering at Fair Grounds wouldn’t compromise his position in the stable. A few days later, Hernandez reversed course.

“Brian’s got to take care of himself, and if he comes to Florida he’s going to struggle,” Wilkes said. “Fort Larned is going to be around next year, but he’s not going to be around for a lifetime.”

Wilkes probably was right: Hernandez would have struggled in Florida. And even flush with Classic success, Hernandez may not shoot up the Fair Grounds standings this season, either. He wound up 12th-leading rider last meet and will probably better that result, but Rosie Napravnik, James Graham, Miguel Mena, Shaun Bridgmohan, and Richard Eramia have a lot of daily business locked up.

It’s an open question whether Hernandez’s 2012 run will prove sustainable, but the groundwork is there for his stakes business to expand beyond Wilkes’s domain. Hernandez and his agent say they’d love to come out of the Fair Grounds meet next spring locked onto a promising 3-year-old who can take them onto the Triple Crown trail. It’s plausible. Hernandez, after 2012, has become a jockey more likely to be put on a good horse than taken off one.